Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school drop-out from a small village in Tamil Nadu, invented a machine to manufacture sanitary pads at a fraction of the cost of branded ones. This allowed thousands of women in rural India, where menstrual hygiene is abysmally low, access to a safe and healthy option.
Which also means it was only a matter of time before Bollywood, recently acquainted to the power of real-life stories, decided to turn Muruganantham’s tale into another weekend blockbuster. Director R. Balki sets his film in Madhya Pradesh to appeal to a Hindi-speaking audience, sprinkles a few songs and inserts a love triangle of sorts to give it a Bollywood makeover.
Akshay Kumar plays ‘Padman’ aka Lakshmikant Chauhan, who lives with his wife, widowed mother and two sisters in a small village. Appalled to see his new bride using grimy rags during her menstrual cycle, Chauhan decides he must find a way to make life easier for her. Sanitary napkins are expensive so he starts making his own by using cotton, plastic sheets and soft cloth.
But his experiments don’t go down too well with his wife and family, for whom talking about menstruation is taboo. In a society where women prioritise their family over themselves, hygiene and safety are subjects that are never spoken about by women, let alone by men. But Chauhan is dogged in his pursuit and blind to the horror that the women of the family feel about his endeavour.
It is to Kumar’s credit that he makes Chauhan seem docile and mild, yet strongwilled enough to go where no Indian man has dared to venture. He is in every scene, and the honesty and sincerity with which he plays this character shines through, thus rubbing out some of the contrivances that are inherent in the script.
Sonam Kapoor as the accented, privileged management student who champions Chauhan’s cause is one of those contrivances, as is the half-hearted romantic track between the two. The dialogue is littered with one-liners, but as is the case with all of Balki’s films, it takes a special appearance by Amitabh Bachchan to deliver the film’s real punchline: “The rest of the world has Superman and Batman, but we have Padman”.
Unlike last year’s “Phullu”, “Padman” focuses more on the man and his efforts to innovate; and every once in a while, the characters throw statistics our way to educate the audience about menstrual hygiene. The climax, which has Chauhan deliver a speech at the United Nations, is overwrought and overdone. It sounds like it’s been lifted partly from Twinkle Khanna’s (Kumar’s wife and a co-producer of the film) columns and partly from Balki’s ad scripts.
Yet, for all its flaws, “Padman”, much like its protagonist, puts in a sincere effort. It takes a subject that most Indians are reluctant to talk about and puts it on the marquee, and that alone is worth the applause.