Bollywood’s big release this month touches upon a subject that is taboo in most Indian homes and therefore, in the movies. “Padman”, which has Akshay Kumar, Sonam Kapoor and Radhika Apte in the lead, is based on the true story of social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham.
Stricken by his wife’s lack of menstrual hygiene in their small town in southern India, Muruganantham found a way to manufacture low-cost sanitary napkins, which are today used by millions of rural women.
Bollywood has traditionally eschewed such topics in the past, but is finding that stories with a social message are increasingly being accepted by audiences. Kumar’s last film was “Toilet – Ek Prem Katha”, which focused on the issue of open defecation, which is still prevalent in large parts of India. “Padman’” director R. Balki, spoke to Reuters about the film, the message and why entertainment is sacrosanct even for a movie with a social theme.
Q: What do you hope “Padman” will achieve?
A: The film is supposed to start a conversation, but it is an Akshay Kumar film. It is a mainstream film, so the entertainment quotient is key. The entertainment is delivered with an important underlying theme, and the story of a man who has spent his life doing this. I feel the film should start a conversation so that people can talk about it, and be able to buy pads for their sisters or daughters.
Q: Can we call it a biopic of Arunachalam Muruganantham?
A: The character is not called Muruganantham, so it’s not a biopic. But it is definitely inspired by his life. It is a cinematic adaptation.
Q: Why did you take the decision to base it in Madhya Pradesh and not in Tamil Nadu, which is where Muruganantham is from?
A: How will I make a full village in Tamil Nadu speak pure Hindi, everybody reacting in Hindi, and the actors speaking in Hindi? If you are making a Hindi film, you have to do it the correct way. More important to me is not the language, it is the cause. The subject we are talking of is far more important than where you are setting it in.
Q: Doesn’t that compromise the authenticity of your story?
A: I am not making a documentary. I am making a feature film. A feature film has to engage people and the cause will be lost if the film doesn’t entertain. Cinematic liberties only help if people appreciate the person’s life even more.
Q: How do you make a film about menstrual hygiene without making the audience uncomfortable?
A: The film is a love story and his journey for his wife. She happens to be the reason why he does what he does and that is what makes the journey so interesting. Journeys get very cold if it is not about the people involved and the emotions that made them do what they do.
Q: Akshay Kumar comes with his own style of films and fans. Did you have to make any changes in your style of film-making because of that?
A: All films are collaborative. All my actors have contributed phenomenally to my films. Akshay is a great creative mind and obviously, his contribution is going to be a lot more. And thank god for that, because this is an important subject we are dealing with. His mannerisms, his body language – they all suited the character. I can’t think of any other actor who could have played that part.
Q: Social messaging has become an important part of Bollywood films these days. Why do you think that is?
A: I feel that a film’s first job is to entertain. What is entertainment keeps changing from time to time. Today, people want to see things that are relevant to them. Of course, sometimes you just want to laugh at some slapstick comedy. Films can choose to take whatever responsibility they want, but the primary responsibility is to entertain. The message cannot overpower the entertainment factor.