Gloria Steinem in her acerbic witty style, wrote an article ‘If men could menstruate’, where she imagined a society in which men had menstruation cycles. She said, “So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event. Men would brag about how long and how much’. As much as it is sardonic it is poignant, because it clearly shows the hypocrisy prevalent in the world. And she wrote this in 1978! Has the taboo surrounding periods died a natural death since then? Well, with education, digitalisation and a few crusaders like Arunachalam Muruganantham and Aditi Gupta, young women now have a better chance at menstrual hygiene now than few decades ago. Yet, the stigma surrounding this biological occurrence refuses to dissipate. Across the world, people still refer to the periods with various euphemisms. Few of them being ‘Red Sea’, ‘Aunt Flow’, ‘Paniters in’ etc. Young girls are made to feel impure by their own families for something which purifies their bodies. The irony writes itself!
Aditi Gupta, mentioned above is the founder of the website ‘Menstrupedia’ which was covered by Time magazine in 2016. http://time.com/4590678/menstrupedia-aditi-gupta-taboo-india/
Amidst all that which is kept under wraps and talked about only in whispers, comes a movie which gives a much needed voice to the period talk. R Balki, the director of topical movies like English Vinglish and Paa presents Padman as a love story more than a story of an innovator. He shuns decorative build up and gets to the point within the first few minutes. Akshay Kumar plays Lakshmikant Chauhan who is every bit an ideal husband and gets concerned when he finds his wife using a dirty cloth during her period days. He is perturbed by the thought of allowing his wife to stay out of the house in an unhygienic condition. On one hand, the new bride is cared for by all in the house, but the minute her body starts going through menstruation, she is deemed impure and made to sleep outside. What is even more painful is the way Lakshmi’s wife honours the tradition without questioning. Radhika Apte gives a measured performance as the traditional and custom driven homely wife for whom “Auraton ke liye sabse badi bimaari hain sharm” (the worst disease for a women is shame). She is feeble and deserts her husband when he needed her the most. Radhika’s portrayal is on point and her shaky eyes and mumbling dialogue delivery gives it the necessary rural housewife touch. On the other hand, Sonam Kapoor’s character as Pari as the facilitator who guides Lakshmi’s character to international acclaim is strong, yet, feels a bit undercooked. The romantic angle to them could have been avoided as it slightly shifted the attention from the larger topic to a dilemma in which our male lead finds himself in.
The movie establishes the bond and unflinching love of Lakshmi for his wife through a lot of cutesy gestures. It reminds us that a man in love can go to any extent to make the life of his loved one better. In this case it was a sanitary pad. As we watch his family and his reputation falling apart due to his single-minded focus on making an affordable alternative to the costly branded sanitary pads, we realise the hardships which Mr Arunachalam (on whom the movie is based) might have gone through in actual life with limited resources, societal repudiation and heartbreak. Credit to the director that he uses elements of humour in order to keep the story graph in the positive axis. Balki also shows the utter hypocrisy which dominates society in India through a song by the ladies of the community as they celebrate the ‘attaining of womanhood’ of a girl. On one hand, she will be taught to feel ashamed of her own body functions and on the other hand, her woman hood is celebrated, albeit for a day.
Balki is the perfect choice as director for this movie. His sensitive yet positive story telling expertise has made him stand out among directors. His movies have touched on topics which generally may not warrant a high profile commercial movie, but there lies his mastery in making them one. Be it Cheeni Kum or Paa, he knows how to connect with the audience and make the topics resonate. Throughout Padman, I could notice audience members go from a smile to uneasiness as they watched the protagonist try a pad himself to test it. It left an impact, as for a few moments each man in the theatre could imagine the exact manner of menstrual cycle had it been a male body function too.
Padman is a story which needed to be told. The story of a Padma Shri innovator from rural Coimbatore needed to reach the masses. As I write this, the box office collections for the first day are not very encouraging. I can only hope that more people go with their families and watch it so that we can at least start talking about periods like the normal thing that it is.
Disclaimer: The images used in this post are the sole property of the makers of this film and are not owned by us in any form whatsoever.