Pad Man

Pad Man (R. Balki, 2018)

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Let’s talk about periods. Moon time. Shark week. Getting a visit from Aunt Flo. Or, as they call it in Pad Man – playing a 5 day test match (because you need pads – though not quite like the shin pads the cricketers wear – to play, get it?).

If you have a uterus, (or even know anyone with a uterus), you are most likely familiar with the unique range of emotional and physical symptoms that generally come with womb ownership a few days every month (that is…if you’re not pregnant). You have probably, at some point, felt embarrassed about having a period. Shame and anxiety never seem too far removed from the topic of menstruation in our society – whether it’s feeling like you can’t be seen to be too emotional lest someone accuses you of being a slave to “that time of the month”, feeling a twinge of embarrassment over discussing periods or menstruation woes in public, or fearing being judged when buying or using sanitary products.

In the tiny rural village where Lakshmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar) lives with his wife Gayatri (Radhika Apte), traditions are strictly adhered to. Most of the women – and the men, actually, in Pad Man, view menstruation as dirty and shameful – something to be hidden.

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This means that when a woman’s “5 day test match” begins (menstruation is so shameful that if it must be spoken about, it is euphemistically), she is segregated from the rest of her family: sleeping and eating outside the house until her period ends.

When we first encounter Lakshmi, it’s in a song (Aaj Se Teri ) that depicts him as a dreamboat of a husband: he views his wife as an equal and cares deeply for her safety and wellbeing, paying attention to little problems in her life and figuring out solutions to help make her life easier and happier. When he sees that chopping onions makes Gayatri cry, he invents an onion chopping machine to do it for her – that’s Lakshmi’s love language. So it’s no surprise that when Gayatri’s period suddenly starts, and Lakshmi realises that Gayatri is using a piece of stained cloth in lieu of a sanitary pad, he views it as another problem he can solve: that’s how he shows he cares.

I cynically feared given the film’s topic that a Bollywood adaptation of the story would present Lakshmi as a swoony filmi hero: the perfect enlightened man who conceives a perfect solution to a problem plaguing women and delivers it to them on a platter: HERE YOU GO LADIES, THE MAN HAS SOLVED THE PROBLEM FOR YOU BECAUSE YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT OR NEED, BUT A MAN CAN GET THINGS DONE.

Ha! I was so (thankfully) wrong!  Lakshmi’s arc – from loving but kind of clueless husband to actual woke bae is what makes Pad Man a really enjoyable, sweet, and satisfying watch, instead of feeling like a “worthy” or preachy issues film.

The concept for Pad Man came from Twinkle Khanna – Akki’s wife – who also produced the film – and it’s apparent that she played a significant role in the making of this film, because Pad Man – despite being a film celebrating a male “real life superhero”, is actually a film that largely loves and celebrates women, as well as men embracing their feminine sides.

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There’s no macho posturing or dishoom dishoom in the heroics of Pad Man – Lakshmi Chauhan is a bona fide Bollywood feminist filmi hero and I LOVED IT.

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The true story it was based upon (of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu who really did invent a machine to produce low cost sanitary pads for village women) was published in Twinkle’s book of feminist short stories The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad. While the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the real life Pad Man of India is definitely one worth telling (really, he seems like a cool guy!), it’s clear the intent behind making Pad Man goes beyond making an entertaining narrative. Film – especially in a country where large segments of the population are illiterate, and don’t have access to ongoing education – can be an effective medium to attempt to change attitudes. Twinkle herself said “our world is filled with viewers, not readers”. This is a film attempting to bring about actual social change:

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but doing it without preaching.

Because Lakshmi – our dreamboat hero –  is far from perfect. The thing I probably liked best about Pad Man is that it kind of acknowledges and throws Lakshmi’s male hubris back in his face repeatedly. While he’s incredibly likeable and sympathetic, with undeniably good intentions; he really fails to grasp that as a man who has never experienced a period, he’s kind of the last person who should be earnestly telling women that he knows better than they do what to do with their bodies.

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And his insistence on kind of…obsessively mansplaining periods has actual repercussions for him.

Just one of the hurdles he faces? THE MASSIVE SOCIAL STIGMA AROUND MENSES. No-one wants a bar of Lakshmi or his weird, “filthy” experiments. Lakshmi – seemingly vastly more progressive and feminist than anyone else in his village, is also just a bit….clueless when it comes to selling his ideas. His singular focus on sanitary pads soon comes across as more than a bit creepy and obsessive, because he’s a pretty simple, if well-intentioned man, unable to clearly articulate why he is so set on getting the women in the village to try his homemade sanitary pad creations, resulting in total alienation from his entire family, disintegration of his marriage and essential banishment from his village. (I mean, this is Bollywood after all. What’s a Bollywood film without pure melodrama?)

AND THAT’S JUST THE SET UP TO THE REAL ACTION, POST INTERMISSION.

How will Lakshmikant redeem himself?

(Hint: it’s heartwarming and worth waiting through the slow first act for).

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