We now live in a world where an entire Bollywood movie deals with one of the most taboo topics in India: menstruation, and deals with it beautifully. With his latest film “Pad Man,” Akshay Kumar crusades yet again for another social cause. Based on the life of the incredible Arunachalam Muruganantham, the movie focuses on his work as he built a machine to manufacture low-cost sanitary napkins for women in rural villages.
“Pad Man” is an emotional journey you take with Lakshmikant Chauhan (Kumar), and by default with Murugananatham, as he struggles with all his might to bring not just an essential product to rural women but also ensure they lead wholesome lives with jobs and a way to earn their own money. While it comes with some minor flaws, the movie holds up a mirror to the society, questioning age-old beliefs and reminding us that we’re long overdue in retiring certain stigmas we attach to menstruation.
Lakshmi is a hard-working and happy man with the mind of an inventor. He lives with his mother, sisters, and new bride Gayatri. He is clearly devoted to her, whipping up small contraptions that help ease her life. Living in a small village in Madhya Pradesh, Lakshmi is familiar with their customs when it comes to menstruation. In many parts of India, when a woman is on her period, she is considered as impure. During those few days each month, she can’t touch anyone else, she has to use her own utensils and live separately. Lakshmi never understood this ‘tradition,’ always telling his own family not to follow it. Gayatri doesn’t listen to his pleas, either.
He realizes she uses dirty rags instead of sanitary pads because they are expensive, costing around Rs. 55 (less than a dollar). After confronting a doctor about it and learning that using anything but a clean pad can be a hotbed for fatal infections, Lakshmi makes it his mission to make sanitary napkins from scratch. He uses simple cotton and plastic in his first few versions and Gayatri even agrees to be his guinea pig. None of them turn out to be a long-term solution. With each try, he alienates his own wife, family, and even the villagers once they realize what he’s up to. Gayatri keeps reminding him that a woman would rather die of shame than talk about periods, especially with a man.
Despite being abandoned by everyone, Lakshmi powers through for many months alone, educating himself about the proper materials to use to make pads, and finally creates four small machines for the fraction of the cost of the one big machine that commercial companies use. It’s revolutionary in its own way. He gets help from Pari Walia (Sonam Kapoor) a tabla player and MBA student, and her father, who help Lakshmi enter his innovation at one of India’s biggest technology exhibitions, where he wins a prize of seed money and is dubbed by Amitabh Bachchan as India’s own superhero aka Pad Man.
From here on, Lakshmi’s work continues to ascend. With Pari’s help, he is able to sell the pads for only Rs. 2 ($0.03!) in the village and now needs to set up shop. Eventually, they are able to train those women to run the business and go about from place to place doing the same, creating jobs and self-help groups. It takes a long time but Lakshmi’s family whole-heartedly welcomes him back. He gives a speech at the UN, is awarded a Padma Shri, and in a way, this is only just the beginning for him.
The movie is not without its mistakes. Storytelling-wise, the biggest mistake it makes is creating an unnecessary, underlying romantic narrative between Lakshmi and Pari. The movie is conveying an important message and it would have succeeded without trying to ‘Bollywood-ize’ it with stolen kisses and love triangles. Luckily, this isn’t expanded upon too much.
Kumar is provocative in his role, stirring up all the feels with every scene that he is in, which is basically all of them. He only cements his position as a powerhouse. He is a criminally underrated Bollywood actor. It’s true. He conquered the title of Khiladi with action films, he scored well with his numerous comedic ventures, but now is his time to really shine as he makes movies that matter. Apte is convincing as the meek, loving Gayatri who is loyal to her husband as best she can be. Kapoor feels slightly misplaced in the movie and is the weakest link in terms of acting.
R. Balki’s direction is quite masterful, as is obvious with some of his previous ventures like “Paa” and “Cheeni Kum.” Even if the subject or scenes are serious, he manages to infuse humor in the film. He really puts you in the scene, whether its exploring details of Lakshmi’s own neighborhood and home or the many other villages he visits. The very final shot of the reel Padman, as he stands atop the steps near a river and stares right into the camera is poignant, because immediately after it, you’re greeted by the sight of the real Padman.
Muruganantham’s life is extraordinary. He chose not to sell out and instead, his work now empowers thousands of women in India. He took a simple idea and turned it into something profound. “Pad Man” does justice to this and to him, which is primarily why you should watch the movie. Most importantly, just by the subject it tackles, the movie is already one-of-a-kind for Bollywood, even spurring fellow actors to speak up with #PadmanChallenge. It’s the type of cinema we need.