Filmmaker and screenwriter R. Balki brings us a film inspired by the real-life story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a Tamil Nadu, India-based social activist who revolutionized the concept of menstrual hygiene in rural India by creating a low-cost sanitary napkin machine. Padman is really a fresh new take on an issue that is taboo and gendered to the core. It’s really something that is culturally frowned upon, not spoken of, and kept outside the doors of homes – literally – across South Asia (and I am sure beyond).
Lakshmi Prasad (played heartwarmingly by Akshay Kumar) is constantly looking to bring ease and comfort to his wife as he watches her chore away around the home. From building her an automatic onion chopper to a chair-like fixture so she can sit behind him on his bicycle, these are some of the few concoctions that he has come up with. Finally, he is faced by the dread that his wife re-uses an old cloth when she has her periods. The hygiene (or lack thereof) of it, and the fact that there is no talk about this in a family with three other women (two other sisters and a mother) has Lakshmi both appalled and strangely oblivious of this ‘women’s thing’. Even the slightest mention of it causes embarrassment galore. Lakshmi goes out and buys his wife a packet of sanitary napkins, but the exorbitant cost for his wife Gayatri’s (played by Radhika Apte) pocket (lower middle-class family) means that spending 55 rupees on something that would become a monthly expense is unacceptable. This pushes Lakshmi to set out on a mission to find a more affordable equivalent.
Obviously, Lakshmi’s path to victory is beset by typical opposition from family, siblings, community, and even the entire village. While most of this is expected and doesn’t come across as a surprise, Balki’s detail of the levels to which conservatism can be rooted is both engaging and keeps you interested in the story. Akshay Kumar and Radhika Apte’s chemistry is sweet, and while Apte plays Gayatri splendidly, she is relegated to waiting on her husband for most of the second half and thus becomes a wasted talent.
After Lakshmi’s exile from the village, he sets off on a path of discovery, going from pillar to post to be able to get to the bottom of this sanitary napkin riddle he is trying to solve. The film romantically explores Lakhmi’s small and big attempts to break through barriers of social stigma and his own personal life situation, but his triumphs are heartwarming and well deserved. His process of learning the science behind a sanitary napkin proves to be quite educational and enlightening.
The length of the film is appropriate for its subject matter, or else there is always a risk of falling into social moralizing and preachy scenes that drag narratives. Unfortunately, there are enough stale and unnecessary dialogues that straddle gender stereotypes and keep the film from really flying high, but all credit to Kumar who pulls up the narrative whenever it falters. Social commentary through comedy is a difficult genre, and Akshay Kumar has been successful in his last few forays doing this. He is adequately supported by his spirited life partner Twinkle Khanna (who is a producer on the film and penned the short story about the life of Muruganantham, also the source material for the script), and the team delivers an entertaining film that speaks to an important issue that has – and continues to remain – taboo.
Padman is now playing at the Cineplex Forum.