Mark of a man
Akshay Kumar is the beating heart of a true-to-life film that pulls no punches
We all have our way of dealing with periods. Some barely manage to pull through those five days of heavy bleeding and debilitating cramps, while most of us go about our lives and work gritting our teeth, all the while wishing we could just take the day off and lie in bed. Some, a few lucky ones, make it look like any other day of the month. Yet, we are all uncomfortable, even though we have sanitary napkins — wafer-thin to winged — to help us cope.
But what’s been a necessary item in our list of monthly grocery buys ever since we hit puberty is a luxury for many women in our country. A country where most can’t afford to buy them and many won’t buy them, buried as they are under the weight of superstition, stigma and shame.
Pad Man takes this taboo around menstruation in rural India head-on, building an honest and heart-warming film around the inspiring real-life story of social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham — ‘India’s Padman’ — whose invention of a low-cost sanitary pad-making machine not only revolutionised menstrual hygiene in the nooks and corners of the country but has also provided employment and economic independence to a large number of village women. Along the way, the man battled social prejudice and was even branded a pervert, but as Akshay Kumar’s Pad Man says in the film: “You have to be mad to be famous.”
Muruganantham’s remarkable story of perseverance and patience, of fighting against all odds and sticking to one’s beliefs, is brought to life by Akshay Kumar who slips into the sandals of the man in what is undoubtedly the actor’s most earnest and effective performance till date. Director R. Balki transposes the action from Muruganantham’s Coimbatore to a village in Madhya Pradesh where newly-wed Lakshmikant Chauhan (Akshay) is appalled to find his wife Gayatri (Radhika Apte) not only using dirty rags during her periods but also being banished to a room outside the house on the days she’s menstruating.
A school dropout, Lakshmi’s sharp skills as a welder and his even sharper mind see him constantly making things — from an improvised onion cutter for Gayatri to a chair fastened to his cycle seat so that she can take a comfortable ride.
Here again, he wants to help out Gayatri, but expensive sanitary pads and his wife’s refusal to even talk to him about a “woman’s problem” make him think of ways to make (or “haath-omatic”, as he puts it) a pad. But Lakshmi’s ingenious invention not only has no takers even within his own family, but his obsession with finding a hygienic solution sees him being ostracised by the village.
At one point, Gayatri even asks him, “What kind of a man has his life trapped between a woman’s legs?” before walking out on him. Left without a job and family, Lakshmi sets off on a journey to regain his lost pride. A journey that finally takes him to the United Nations, awards him a Padma Shri and makes him a “superhero” called “Pad Man”.
Pad Man scores on many fronts. It’s heartening to see a mainstream star like Akshay use the medium of a commercial film to tackle a hush-hush subject. Pad Man pulls no punches — a visceral scene where Lakshmi tests his invention wearing panties with a makeshift bladder filled with goat’s blood attached — is one of the most impactful moments in the film. A subject like this could have degenerated to an overstretched public service announcement — something that Akshay’s last release Toilet: Ek Prem Katha suffered from — but Balki ensures the film remains engaging. Even as many scenes show Lakshmi going through the painstaking process of building his machine — his eureka idea is to invent four low-cost gadgets that will do the work of one expensive machine — the technicalities never bore.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t fall prey to mansplaining, illustrating it through a finely-done sequence where the village women refuse to take free pads from Lakshmi, despite his plaintive pleas, but pay money to buy it from Pari, played by Sonam Kapoor, who not only helps Lakshmi realise his vision but is also the face of female empowerment in Pad Man.
Akshay Kumar is the beating heart of Pad Man, imbuing Lakshmi with sincerity and sensitivity, conveying much with a quiver of his lips or an arch of the brow. And that speech in what he calls ‘Linglish’ — “Lakshmi’s English” — will make you clap and cheer.
Radhika is unfortunately saddled with a one-note role but she rises above it often, while Sonam brings charm and a certain cool to Pari. The rest of the actors — mostly little-known faces — are perfectly cast. The forced romantic angle between Lakshmi and Pari, however, doesn’t work.
Despite its problems and pitfalls, Pad Man has started a conversation around a topic that people cringe away from, and it deserves to be lauded just for its courage to do that. Period.
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