Director: R. Balki
How do you make a mainstream film with a message about menstrual hygiene? Simple. If you’re Akshay Kumar, you stick to the template of your last hit – a film with a message about the hazards of open defecation.
Like Toilet Ek Prem Katha, Akshay’s latest, Pad Man, is about the great lengths a loving husband will go to for the happiness and the health of his wife. Like that film it employs humor to ease the fuss around age-old taboos, and as it turns out, it suffers from the same malaise that crippled Toilet – it’s well intentioned but let down by clunky execution.
Which is a shame. Because Pad Man, directed and co-written by R Balki, deserves credit for addressing a subject that Indians find even harder to talk about than sauch and sandas.
Lakshmikant Chauhan, a humble mechanic in a small town in Madhya Pradesh, becomes obsessed with finding an affordable alternate to the expensive sanitary pads available in medical shops when he learns about the health risks posed by the scraps of cloth his wife reuses every month. Played by the film’s leading man this character is based on Arunachalam Muruganantham, the country’s real ‘Menstrual Man’ from Coimbatore, a school-dropout who invented a low-cost sanitary pad-making machine, and who is credited with creating awareness about menstrual hygiene in rural India.
Akshay plays him as a man possessed. Whose every waking moment is spent thinking of, or talking about sanitary pads, or assembling his own home-made versions. Given the stigma and the embarrassment attached to menstruation, his single-minded obsession earns him the contempt of his townsfolk. The word ‘sharm’ is bandied about countless times by his hapless wife Gayatri (Radhika Apte), who can’t understand why he won’t just let it go. “Aurat ke pairon ke beech kyon phansi hai aapki jaan?” she asks him, confused, ashamed and upset, all at once.
There is no question that Pad Man tells an inspirational story that deserves to be heard. The statistics around menstruation are alarming; according to the film, only 12 per cent of the female population in India uses sanitary napkins, the rest likely resort to options that make them susceptible to fatal infections. Any film that ‘mainstreams’ this conversation – especially one starring a big Bollywood actor – is worthy of praise. But Pad Man quickly becomes something between a Public Service Advertisement and an MBA course case study. If Toilet Ek Prem Katha shrewdly attached itself to the Prime Minister’s beloved Swachh Bharat campaign, then this film – which shows in minute detail how our protagonist assembled his revolutionizing sanitary pad machine – fits nicely with the Make in India initiative. At one point, a superstar even makes a cameo to deliver a speech on the innovative spirit of Indians.
The writing, by Balki and Swanand Kirkire, starts out sharp and funny, but quickly becomes heavy-handed and repetitive. Sonam Kapoor’s character Pari, a management student and an expert tabla player who helps Lakshmi realize his dream, seems to have been created only for politically correct reasons. But then an awkward romantic angle in the film’s final act undoes its own design.
All of this is especially frustrating, because there’s so much to appreciate in the film. I found myself fully invested in the relationship between Akshay and Radhika’s characters because both actors bring genuine heartfelt emotion to their scenes together. Akshay plays a refreshingly progressive man in an orthodox town, and he invests Lakshmi with winning earnestness. His big speech at the United Nations is funny and charming, although a bit long.
In the end Pad Man is admirable and has its heart in the right place, but it might have benefitted from a less sermonizing tone. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.