Cast: Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte, Sonam Kapoor
Direction: R Balki
‘Pad Man’ is a well-intentioned film that does a commendable job of handling the “taboo” topic of female hygiene. With Akshay Kumar playing a very convincing protagonist, Balki manages to keep things relevant and engaging.
Inspired by the incredible real-life story of a social activist, the narrative recounts Arunachalam Muruganantham’s bold fight against social stigma and ridicule as he invents an indigenous and affordable alternative to expensive sanitary napkins.
For Arunachalam, a school dropout, the struggle begins at home when he fails to convince his wife and sisters that using a soiled cloth during menstruation is not just unhygienic, but a frank invitation to serious infections and disease.
The compelling, almost unbelievable, story is obviously the centerpiece of this presentation. However, picking an issue such as the menstrual cycle and its attendant problems – and making it watchable for the mainstream Indian audience – requires more than just a little skill.
With such bloody issues to tackle, the storytelling, understandably, isn’t flawless, but it is still engaging enough barring a few excesses.
Here, I think a comparison with Akshay’s last socially-relevant film – ‘Toilet – Ek Prem Katha’ (2017) – is only relevant. Based on the social scourge of open defecation, the previous film and the ‘fix’ it provided seemed to be rather simplistic. Too much time was spent on the build up and over attempts at finding a jugaad, rather than looking for a real solution.
‘Pad Man’ does an excellent job of taking things head-on. Our protagonist’s struggles are real and he is undaunted in his efforts. Akshay deserves a loud round of applause for taking an unflinching stance in this one – in a role that has no provisions for him to show-off his toned body, his athleticism and his fun-filled song-and-dance routine. He sinks his teeth into the character with sincerity, belting out a robust performance sprinkled with welcome doses of understated humour.
Making menstruation and sanitary napkins dinner table conversation is no mean feat.
Balki builds a credible mise en scène – the dusty roads of rural Madhya Pradesh, the poor homes of the locality and especially, the separate section where women are quarantined during “impure” days. The setting merges seamlessly with the storytelling.
Such is the earnestness of the effort, I am even ready to overlook some of the overindulging parts – though the melodrama does get a tad overboard at times. Also, the romantic track with Sonam Kapoor is completely unnecessary. I mean, come on! Is it too much for us to expect Bollywood to have two mainstream stars acting alongside each other without falling head-over-heels in love? This side narrative appears entirely forced and superfluous.
Barring the tiny hiccups, this film does a commendable job of destigmatizing “periods”. This unique physiological phenomenon is a norm rather than an exception, so why not be more inclusive about discussing it?
There’s this funny scene where Akshay buys sanitary napkins for the very first time and it is delivered to him under the counter, wrapped in a newspaper as if it is contraband. This is the bitter truth not only in rural India but across medical shops all over the country – we are groomed to ask for female hygiene products in hushed tones.
As India hurtles ahead to match the developed world, it is only logical that her cinema follows suit. Thus, we need more films that send out a strong social message and don’t brush perceived taboos such as mental health, feminine hygiene, and sex education under the carpet.
Do watch this one – it is an interesting story about an incredible man.