Akshay Kumar’s newest venture PadMan, directed by R. Balki, is the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a man from Coimbatore who is credited with building a cost-effective sanitary pad making machine for Rs 65,000, while it’s mainstream commercial counterparts cost around Rs 3,50,00,000.
Muruganantham is said to have developed an interest in helping rural women afford and access sanitary pads after he saw his wife using rags and newspapers during her periods due to the high cost of commercially sold sanitary pads.
PadMan details his quest to understand the troubles rural women face during menstruation, the ways in which it affects their health and his determination and dedication to build a machine that can make low-cost sanitary napkins that can be afforded by poor women.
This seems like a very honourable venture at first, but it isn’t as simple as that. The movie is not much different from other Bollywood movies and fails at being the poster child for the wave of change in Hindi cinema that it aspires to be.
Akshay Kumar plays the character of Lakshmikant Chauhan, while the role of his wife, Gayatri Chauhan, is plated by Radhika Apte and Sonam Kapoor plays the role of Pari Walia, an MBA student who helps Kumar’s character in selling his pads.
PadMan perpetuates the stereotype of the ‘abla naari’ who needs a man’s protection, but only according to his convenience and whims.
PadMan glorifies Lakshmikant and portrays him as a nice and honourable man who loves his wife and is willing to do anything for her. Gayatri stays outside the house during her periods in order to not ‘pollute’ the house and he is very vocal about his displeasure regarding this, after all, he is the man who wanted to make sanitary pads for his wife.
Although, for a man who loves his wife as much, he never once stands up for her against the scrutiny of his mother and sisters. Through the course of the movie, Gayatri mentions several times how his mother is controlling, how she constantly blames her for troubles or shortcomings the family faces and how she puts her down. Lakshmikant pays no heed to any of this and never once speaks to his mother or sisters about treating his wife with respect.
This movie repeatedly perpetuates the age-old stereotype of the ‘abla naari’ who needs to be protected by a man, but only according to his convenience and whims.
Another major issue with the movie is that the character of Lakshmikant who we are supposed to sympathise with and like for being a good man, seems to be fine with violating other people’s personal spaces to feed his obsession. He does several things during the course of the movie that are questionable.
In the beginning of the movie, Gayatri refuses to try on any more pads he makes, he takes them to his married sister’s house to persuade her to try it on, which is fine by itself. However, his nephew pulls the pads out of his pocket during lunch and when met with questioning eyes, he blurts out he got it for his sister. There wouldn’t be too much wrong with this, except he was well aware of the backlash and humiliation she would have to face due to this, and most of all, he knew this wasn’t a conversation she would like to have in front of so many people and this he couldn’t respect.
He also climbs up the balcony of his teen neighbour in the middle of the night to give her his pads and to convince her to use them, but when discovered by the child’s mother, a commotion ensues and the whole neighbourhood assumes he is a perverse man. Although his intention might be noble, he had absolutely no regard for the personal space of the child, and looking at it from the mother’s standpoint, there isn’t anything wrong with her being outraged. You do not want to wake up in the middle of the night to find someone hanging onto your railing, talking to your child in whispers.
To me, though, the most problematic part of this movie is the storyline involving Sonam Kapoor. When Kumar’s character is due to speak at a UN convention, he is nervous and apprehensive and urges Kapoor to join him on stage. Kapoor, without saying a word, kisses him and says he’ll do fine. Kapoor’s character certainly does not understand the need for consent, nor does her character respect the fact that he is married to someone else.
After the convention, when Gayatri calls him, Kapoor’s character is shown to be heartbroken. On the flight back home, Lakshmikant is confused as to whom to ‘pick’ – his wife or the woman he loves. This perpetuates the stereotypical idea that men are weak-willed and can be swayed from their path of self-righteousness by women.
When Pari senses his dilemma, in order to make things easy for him she asks him to go back to Gayatri because they can’t be together anyway because of how different they are. In order to justify her kiss, she says it meant nothing but ‘josh happens’ and it is normal.
This train of thought is incredibly problematic because it means a mockery of consent and portrays sexual urges as something that cannot be controlled. Kapoor’s character’s actions were a violation of Lakshmikant’s bodily autonomy and instead of acknowledging this the movie laughs it off, thus trivialising and normalising unwanted sexual interaction.
PadMan portrays menstruation as ‘aurato wali batein’ and reinforces the stigma it so proudly claimed to eradicate.
The movie also reinforces the stigma it claims to break. After winning an award for his invention, Kumar’s character is still unable to sell his pads because of the stigma surrounding it. Although, when Kapoor’s character decides to go door to door and sell his product, they sell like hotcakes. A puzzled Lakshmikant questions her as to how she managed to do this and she says, “sirf ek aurat, aurato se, aurato wale batein kar sakti hai”.
Soon after he employs a lot of village women to sell his sanitary napkins and one of them suggests that they give it a name so that women won’t be ashamed of asking for them. So Lakshmikant decides to name his product ‘Pari’ after the character played by Sonam Kapoor.
For a movie that claims to destigmatize menstruation and to initiate a conversation about it, plot lines like these are only reinforcing existing stigmas.
The movie might do an outstanding job at portraying Akshay Kumar as a man who cares deeply about social causes, it will be great for his self-brand and maybe even that of Arunachalam Muruganantham, but the movie doesn’t do much to counter the stigma associated with menstruation. The movie also leaves out essential details like the in-effectiveness of Muruganantham’s pads which apparently have to be changed every hour.
PadMan portrays menstruation as ‘aurato wali batein’ and reinforces the stigma it so proudly claimed to eradicate. It doesn’t initiate a conversation about menstruation related taboos and myths, all it does is make good money at the box office by falsely claiming it’s the poster child of social change.
Featured Image Credit: Financial Express