Having postponed the release of their film to accommodate Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s historical drama, “Padmaavat,” the makers of “Pad Man” are utilizing the extra time to keep the momentum going for a few more days through the ‘Pad Man challenge,’ which requires celebrities to post pictures holding a sanitary pad.
But in the process, not only are they pushing celebrities to stretch out of their comfort zone, they are also breaking mental barriers, and opening channels of communication on menstruation hygiene, a largely “taboo subject,” author-columnist Twinkle Khanna, who steps into the producer’s shoes with the film, told India-West ahead of the film’s release Feb. 9.
“Pad Man” examine the trials and tribulations of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented the first low-cost sanitary pad making machine.
But it’s not that Khanna, wife of Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, and a former actress, who now charms the nation with her sardonic wit in a writing that is often laced with incisive observation, has suddenly turned an advocate for menstrual hygiene. In 2015, she wrote about menstruation in her columns in a daily; and in 2016, she wrote about Murugunantham and his phenomenal feat in her bestseller book, “The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad.” But she wanted her message to percolate down to millions more.
“The modern-day world is primarily made up of viewers instead of readers. I knew that if I wanted this story to get into every household, not just in India but in rural India as well, then cinema was the best platform to use,” Khanna told India-West. “I narrated the story and the idea to somebody who does publicity banners and then he introduced me to R. Balki and we eventually discussed how best to get the story out there – which was of course in the form of a film.”
The film, its theme notwithstanding, embraces all the frills of a Bollywood potboiler, and that, Khanna said, is a great method for making people sit up and take notice.
“We could have quite easily made this into a documentary, but we wanted to avoid it becoming too preachy,” she said. “We incorporated music, romance and laughter into a film which is ultimately tackling an incredibly serious topic, and I believe that people are more likely to resonate with the message when they are entertained. The potential of cinema is boundless, it enables you to be expressive and creative whilst educating people at the same time.”
There is no doubt that a film with a serious, weighty theme such as this would sail smoother with the power of a star, in this case Akshay Kumar. And Kumar, who has become synonymous with socially conscious films that spotlight important issues but with a heavy dose of entertainment, signed on the dotted line right away, she said.
“I don’t think Akshay hesitated even for a moment about taking on the role of Arunachalam Muruganantham; we didn’t even have to have a discussion about him wearing a sanitary pad in the film,” Khanna recalled to India-West. “He really took to the project like a duck to water and embraced the subject, and I think that’s testament to his ever-increasing commitment to using his profile and talent to raise awareness of key talking points.”
Kumar’s last hit, “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha,” which also earned a note of appreciation from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, was a satirical take on a battle against the age-old tradition of open defecation in the country.
Kumar, Khanna said, “is celebrated around the world as one of the leading lights of the Bollywood industry, and as a role model to hundreds of thousands of people, his presence as the lead actor in ‘Pad Man’ will encourage more discussion.”
Khanna said she first came across Muruganantham when she was researching for her column for a newspaper, and was instantly gripped by the story of a man who wanted to do something as simple yet important as creating a low cost sanitary pad for his wife, and was ostracized for it.
“Here was a real-life tale of a man who risked everything he had – including his wife and marriage – for the empowerment and comfort of hundreds of thousands of women,” the 43-year-old noted. “He went to the ends of the earth to provide an affordable sanitary pad for his wife to make her life better, more comfortable and disease free, even though the pursuit cost him his matrimony.”
“He was relentlessly trying to develop a low cost, high quality sanitary pad and in the process even decided to test the pad himself, since no woman would, by putting it between his legs whilst cycling with a plastic packet of blood and a pipe connected to it. He was cycling with blood dripping between his legs to see whether the pad would leak or not. I just thought the story was remarkable,” she told India-West.
Muruganantham, she said, disregarded the risks of isolation and ridicule to go out and get what he wanted, which is something she found very inspiring.
“He must have been the only man to know how women felt on their periods,” she said.
Getting him on board, she said, was the hardest part of the entire process, but in the end, her perseverance paid off.
“I had been trying to get in touch with him, calling from all over India and he never answered the phone. I was constantly chasing him to speak from wherever I was, and this one time, whilst I was in England, he finally answered my call,” Khanna recalled to India-West. “I think it was because he thought a foreign journalist was calling, so he promptly picked up the phone and said I can’t talk to you because I am in London. I immediately answered him saying, well, I’m here too and drove down to visit him.”
The reason she went above and beyond to make this film happen, even though she had covered the topic in her book, was because “‘Pad Man’ was a story that I felt needed to be told in every household, to start a conversation about menstruation and whether we like it or not, most people in the modern era are comprised of viewers rather than readers.”
“I believe that film really is the best vehicle to propel this story to the forefront to educate the world,” she said.
“Pad Man,” Khanna stressed, is aimed at everyone in the family since the taboo around menstruation is still very much alive in India today.
“We want to create a conversation about periods in households across the country, whether it’s in the car or over the kitchen table,” she asserted to India-West. “We are also keen for men to see the film, to see Akshay in the lead role and let them know it’s not a taboo topic. So, don’t be afraid to bring dad, son, brother or uncle along.”
Khanna said it’s crucial to normalize this common bodily function.
“I feel as if women have been made to feel ashamed about their periods, hence, why they don’t speak about it,” she told India-West. “The stigma still exists, and there remains a lack of awareness and facilities, which means girls are still dropping out of school when they start menstruating because they have no access to sanitary towels. For a natural part of the female body to lead to 20 percent of girls dropping out of schools is unbelievable. That’s why ‘Pad Man’ is such an important film for whole families to see as it impacts everyone.”
Reflecting on three years of hard work, and the positive intent behind it, Khanna, who also addressed the topic at Oxford Union, said she hopes ‘Pad Man’ becomes a movement.
“Women have already started sharing their experiences, and I hope the conversations continue as a result, online and in households,” she told India-West. “I also hope that men feel brave enough to join the conversation, because their opinions and attitudes are just as important! With menstrual hygiene being a global issue, I hope it becomes part of the wider international discourse, too.”