Synopsis – Upon realizing the extent to which women are affected by their menses, a man sets out to create a sanitary pad machine and to provide inexpensive sanitary pads to the women of rural India.
My Take – Akshay Kumar is back at it again, solving India’s problems one film at a time. Firstly kudos to him for delaying the release of this R. Balki directed film from its Republic Day date, to ensure the Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat arrives solo considering its troubled release. Here, Akshay Kumar picks up a topic which probably no one thought a film could be made about, menstrual hygiene. The proverbial elephant in the room, which has been hushed and shushed for years in India, a country which still holds a tight grip on age-old traditions and blind superstitions, yet here, director R. Balki’s socio-drama does the unthinkable and weaves a real-life inspired story that holds your attention for most of its screen time. Based on the compelling true-life story Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school drop-out from a small village in Tamil Nadu, who invented a machine to manufacture sanitary pads at a fraction of the cost of branded ones, which allowed thousands of women in rural India, where menstrual hygiene is abysmally low, access to a safe and healthy option. Even though 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 make-over, with Akshay Kumar taking on the role of the “Menstrual Man” with complete dedication, the film is with a doubt inspiring and courageous. Yes, despite the absence of any vulgarity, I would not watch this film with my family, mainly as some scenes can be considered too bold to be witnessed with a conservative audience, which is a shame as the film is too compelling to be missed. The story follows Lakshmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar), an innovative mechanic from a small village in Madhya Pradesh. Madly in love with his newly wed bride, Gayatri (Radhika Apte), Lakshmikant always finds innovative ways to make things better for her, especially in the kitchen. However, when he notices how she is ostracized from the house during her periods and has been using a dirty rug to clean the menstrual blood, Lakshmi become apprehensive of the health hazards it could cause to his wife. As she refuses to use an official sanitary pad due to their high costs, Lakshmi fashions a cotton pad himself and persuades his wife to use the same.
Unfortunately, his efforts backfire as his single minded agenda to invent a pad only makes the entire village dub him as a madman causing his entire family to disown him. Leaving his village heartbroken, Lakshmi continues his efforts in high spirits despite the continuation of his shunning and shaming, all until he finds support from Pari (Sonam Kapoor), an empowered Delhi MBA student, who helps him not only get recognition but also helps his innovation reach and benefits millions of rural women. It must have been a daunting job, to not only pick up such a taboo and uncomfortable topic but also make an interesting film out of it. And of course, hats off to the heart throb of millions, Akshay Kumar, to be brave enough to portray the character and the tough story so well. The film much like its protagonist, puts in a sincere effort and takes a subject that most Indians are reluctant to talk about and puts it on the marquee, and that alone is worth the applause. While, we have seen so many well-made inspiring films, what sets this one apart is its success in handling such an offbeat and difficult subject and its perfect execution. The team’s offbeat and aggressive marketing is also doing wonders in bringing the issue out of closet and most importantly, the film manages to accomplish what is has set out to do. It pulls you out of your comfort zones, pulls down the discomfort of discussing the issue and inspires you to do your own little bit about it. Besides depicting the journey of social activist Arunachalam Muruganatham, here, director Balki breaks the menstrual taboo which remains prevalent through much of the country and without wasting much time on the decoration of the build-up, director Balki gets straight to the point in the film by successfully empowering us with factors of sanitary pads in such a way that managed to keep the audience engaged throughout those 140 minutes of the film. This is a story of sheer grit and resilience, as it awakens us, inspires us, overwhelms us and draws immense respect for the real-life hero. Here, director R. Balki and writer Swanand Kirkire creatively deconstruct Twinkle Khanna‘s short story and then build a narrative of their own. The film is clearly divided into two halves. Pre-interval Lakshmikant faces humiliation and disdain. His wife’s constant flow of tears imploring him to give up this madness of trying to find a low-cost, alternative pad, go in vain. Post-interval, his motivation and resolve even more solid, Lakshmikant puts his head and heart into finding the answer. In a strange twist of events, the second half of the film plays out far better than the first one. The plot, though, quickly dives into the central issue, and I reckon director Balki could have taken the cinematic liberty to chop off some stretched parts: he plays his best cards in the second half. Director Balki who is known for taking up offbeat subjects, has done a fantastic job. He manages to entertain and engage, which is so much more important if you have to reach across to the masses on a sensitive issue. Subtle humor and romance have all been used beautifully while keeping the subject light and non-preachy. The film makes you feel the journey of the man with all his passion, pains, frustrations and perseverance conveyed as perfectly as possible. All this, while you are completely engaged emotionally, which I think is a feat for the director. The film is so full of overwhelming moments that you would often find yourself misty eyed. Here, both Balki and Akshay ensure that the film, despite its serious subject, never becomes tedious or boring for its audience. The writing and conception of every scene has a lot of thought put into it. Especially the scenes that involve talk about periods and pads, have been written with the right kind of sensitivity, also any comparisons to Toilet – Ek Prem Katha are killed early on.
The film is quite a different story with a totally different subject and narrative. The biggest plus point of the film is its emotional connect with the central character of Laxmi. You end up not only empathizing with him but also stay invested in his story till the very end. Director R. Balki’s free hand has been fruitfully utilized in the second half. Now, it can be argued that director Balki was more comfortable bringing his own inputs to the table, which is why the second half is constructed deftly. It can also be argued that director Balki feels more at home projecting a milieu he is familiar with. In one of the best yet the most understated scenes of the film, he puts forward his writing genius through a freewheeling conversation between Sonam Kapoor‘s character Pari and her father. This scene boasts of the trademark organic smoothness that his films — like Cheeni Kum and Paa — are known for. Also the scenes, where Pari mentions how being a woman helps in initiating a conversation around periods. It is a smart move to allow space for a major female stakeholder in the process. I get it Lakshmi’s concern for his wife and his commitment to buying her a sanitary napkin, a resolution that slowly turns into an obsession that is avowedly portrayed, But I really felt for the man, in fact, we are on his side by the time the opening song comes to an end – he gets flowers for his wife, reprimands her for her self-imposed isolation and tries to talk her out of age-old prejudices. The protagonist’s obsession with the issue from the point of view of health and hygiene is equally matched by the women’s refusal to see logic and reasoning. His resilience to keep looking for affordable and practical solutions is equally matched by frustrating ignorance of people. His efforts are thwarted by people who refused to support. If you view the film in a vacuum bereft of context, it is entertaining and, for the most part, sensible. Though there is a lot I liked about the film, there are a few things which did bother me. I get it, the film has its heart in the right place, with its attempt to normalize periods and the use of sanitary napkins, but at time director R. Balki gets too technical behind the whole process, which may make families quite uncomfortable. The film also has a few unnecessary sequences, which only add on to its run time, for example, the ritual song ushering a girl into her puberty. While, Sonam Kapoor‘s character Pari becomes a delightful welcome entry to the proceedings, an awkward romantic angle which builds up between the two leads before the final act of the film was really jarring. Of course, this film wouldn’t have been what is if not for Akshay Kumar, who as always is a delight to watch. Here, Akshay is at his natural best in the garb of a village bumpkin Lakshmi and remains refreshingly aloof of his ‘the next big thing’ persona and pumps humility into his character, by using subtle humor and a straight face to debunk one menstrual myth at a time. It is to Akshay Kumar’s credit that he makes Chauhan seem docile and mild, yet strong-willed 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. He absolutely kills the speech delivered at the United Nations. Sonam Kapoor is perfect in her role as the sassy educated woman. Her character is completely a figment of director Balki‘s imagination, and she fits the part of the progressive, outspoken woman whose confidence comes in no small part from her relationship with her father. Radhika Apte as the simple, ignorant wife is also brilliant. She conveys the shame and pain so beautifully that you develop a soft spot for her despite her ignorance and her refusal to see things differently and support her husband. On the whole, ‘PadMan‘ is a brave and an inspirational attempt to deliver awareness with entertainment.
Directed – R. Balki
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 140 minutes