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Cellulose Love

Saturday, February 10, 2018
By Deepa Gahlot

Pad Man
R. Balki
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Sonam Kapoor, Radhika Apte and others
Rating: * * 1/2

It is perhaps because Akshay Kumar is in social reformer mode that a film like Pad Man even got made. If he could make film about toilets watchable, surely he can sell the idea of low cost sanitary pads. It helps that his wife Twinkle Khanna wrote a story based on the Coimbatore-based menstrual hygiene activist Arunachalam Muruganantham, and also produced the film, directed by R Balki. (Phullu, an earlier film made on the same subject and the documentary Menstrual Man went unnoticed).

The southern setting of the story is moved to Madhya Pradesh, the character of a table-playing MBA Pari (Sonam Kapoor) added to it for glamour and romance, and Pad Man gets off the ground with the marriage of Laxmikant Chauhan (Kumar) to Gayatri (Radhika Apte). The gully boys know, but Laxmi is surprised to learn that menstruating women have to spend five days outside the house and nobody can touch them. He is even more astonished to learn that his wife used a dirty rag. She refuses his gift of expensive sanitary pads (what will mother-in-law say!), so he gets obsessed with the idea of making low cost pads.

His family breaks up, his wife leaves him out of shame, and he is banished from the village as a pervert. Step by boring (for the audience) step he makes a machine to manufacture low cost cellulose pads. He wins an award for innovation (Amitabh Bachchan drops by to make an inspiring speech), the smitten Pari helps him market the pads door to door and the two also teach other women to make and sell them so that they can be financially independent. Laxmi even gets to make a long speech in broken English at a UN meet in New York. After getting a Padma Shri, he returns to the village in triumph.

As a story of a man’s journey Pad Man is fine; you even overlook the constant mansplaining and chest thumping (“a man is a man only if he can protect women”). The first half has its moments of comedy mixed with melodrama. But there is difference between manufacturing a two-rupee pad (which would be out of reach of most poor women anyway), and tacking social taboos surrounding menstruation. For instance, many educated urban women won’t go to a temple when they are menstruating; in many households women do not cook for five days. Not to even mention problem of disposal of these pads in villages, and the environmental cost of non-biodegradable material being flushed into sewer lines.

Maybe it is too much for a single film to tackle. It is enough that Akshay Kumar brought his star power and considerable charm to the film and at least started an open conversation about menstruation.

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