Cast: Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte, Sonam Kapoor
Director: R Balki
Running Time: 2 hours 20 mins
In 2014, Arunachalam Muruganatham was included in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.
In 2016, he was awarded the Padma Shri.
And in 2018, his incredible story as a man of modest means from Tamil Nadu who set out to make low cost sanitary napkins for rural women in India has reached mainstream Bollywood audiences. That too with a reigning superstar playing the real life superhero – Padman! Making periods and pads drawing room conversation. And that is Padman’s biggest win.
Written and directed by R. Balki ‘Padman’ is based on a short story by Twinkle Khanna, ‘The Sanitary man from Sacred Land’ from her book, The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad. Which in turn was inspired by the extraordinary and powerful real life story of Muruganatham who in a bid to help his wife ease period stigma and discomfort took it upon himself to make sanitary napkins so that cost wouldn’t be an obstacle to better hygiene. And in the process set in motion a revolution.
The film shifts the story setting to Madhya Pradesh where Lakshmikanth Chauhan, a school dropout and a mechanic (Akshay Kumar) does everything in his capacity to impress his newly wedded wife, Gayatri (Radhika Apte). From a customized seat on his bicycle to an onion-chopping hack – he devises anything that he feels will make her life more comfortable.
So, when confronted with the stigma and discomfort his wife goes through when she has her periods – he sets out to solve that too. But a simple solution seems a distant possibility, as he has to hurdle past social taboos first. When his wife refuses to use sanitary napkins bought from a store owing to the fact that they are too expensive and given that there are other women in the house, it may mean giving up on essentials like milk to just to be able to afford them – he decides to give her handmade pads. His efforts at making a usable sanitary napkin is met with disgust and an overwhelming sense of shame – by all the women in his life – including his mother, sisters, and wife. So much so that eventually, his wife leaves him and Lakshmiprasad is ousted from his village. How he manages to realize his impossible dream – with no resources or support at his disposal forms the rest of the story.
Sonam Kapoor as management graduate Pari slips into her role with ease. Her character (though fictional) plays the crucial role of enabling Lakshmiprasad closer to his goal. Though there is an unconvincing hint at a romance between Pari and Lakshmi – it is quickly dealt and done over with. Radhika Apte’s role is mostly one dimensional – as a distraught wife who cannot fathom her husband’s obsession with a ‘ladies problem’. Akshay Kumar gives this role his all – he is endearing, earnest and effortless as Lakshmiprasad.
Padman is not an easy story to sell to an audience that is not comfortable even discussing periods as a topic openly. In fact, there is a scene in the movie where Akshay Kumar’s character goes to a chemist to buy his wife sanitary napkins and when he is handed the packet sheepishly from under the counter, wrapped in a newspaper – he wonders aloud – why are you handing it to me like a banned product?
(Well, sadly that is a reality even in urban cities like Mumbai – where sanitary napkins are packed tightly in newspapers as if it were the most unnatural thing to buy!)
Some moments in Padman shine through – like the priceless scene when Akshay tries on one of his pads with women’s underwear, with animal blood in a rubber sack attached to a tube to test the product himself and his experiment fails. On the other hand, there are some that just come across as too dramatic and over the top – especially scenes in which the villagers react to Lakshmiprasad’s experiments with jarring background music. Also, statistics get repeated often as if to beat home a point leaving little room for subtlety. Even the production values seem to fluctuate – from golden hued village shots to some shots tackily dealt with.
Given the incredible story it is inspired from, Balki’s handling of the story falls short at times – straddling a social message and entertaining the audience at the same time is a tough balance to pull off. And portions in the film do go off the mark at times.
But Padman is definitely a relevant film and its biggest achievement is that it normalizes and initiates conversations on menstruation and menstrual hygiene. It’s an incredible story of one man’s fight against all odds and social taboos. And it’s a brave subject to choose for a mainstream film. And for that, it deserves to be watched.