‘Pad Man’ review: Sanitary Nappings

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Life is a Cinema Hall rating: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) (This rating is only a snapshot. The details are in the words.)

In possibly what is one of the best scenes in Pad Man, Lakshmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar) is at the chemist’s, wanting to buy a pack of sanitary napkins for his wife, Gayatri (Radhika Apte). Lakshmi is trying to describe what he wants, and the chemist is second-guessing him, but quickly realizing what his customer wants, he slides the pack under the side of the counter, a couple of girls giggling next to Lakshmi; this surreptitiousness draws a whiplash of a marijuana-loaded crack from Lakshmi that’s telling of what’s so wrong in so many countries and religions when it comes to menstruation and societal attitudes.

And just for that, writer-director R. Balki (Swanand Kirkire co-wrote the story, based on Twinkle Khanna’s short story, The Sanitary Man of Sacred Land) deserves huzzahs. Based on a life’s focused efforts of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India, who invented low-cost machines that whip-cut-compress-sanitize napkins at costs much lower than what multi-nationals charge, Pad Man brings into focus women’s menstrual hygiene, even it comes with all the strappings (no pun intended) of mainstream cinema. Opening with composer Amit Trivedi’s Aaj Se Teri number – a strangely enjoyable, semi-lilt-and-tilt towards a mish-mash of nostalgic scores, sung by Arijit Singh (note how constant invasion can immunize one to almost about anything) – which also serves as the opening credits’ vehicle, Lakshmi-Gayatri’s nuptial and post-nuptial activities, it highlights rather neatly the husband’s proclivity to innovation, even if it means resorting to monkey business to help wifey dearest to chop onions.

Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte - fun fair
Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte: fun fair while it lasts.

If Gayatri was on Facebook, she’d have immediately posted a selfie with sweetheart Lakshmi, telling the world how sweet he was, and that she was the luckiest to have the world’s best husband with her –  never mind how it’d have been nicer if she’d stuck to just telling him that on his face. Fortunately for us, they’re all in a small village in the state of Madhya Pradesh, and when Lakshmi notices Gayatri using a dirty cloth, hidden under her washed sari to cover her 5-day shame and social ostracism, he takes it upon himself to find a better, hygienic alternative for her. As you discover, he’s tried having these conversations with his sisters, but he’s been vetoed into silence. This time however, his resolve turns into manic research and focus, and pretty soon he’s gotten the ladies of his house, his neighbors, and the whole village cottoned up against him. For, why would a man want to poke his itchy fingers into what is strictly a woman’s affaire d’honneur?

Why not, is the question that the movie raises somewhere amidst its earnest attempt to also please the box-office. And post-intermission, Lakshmi’s mission takes him into his moment of epiphany to develop low-cost sanitary pad-making machinery, even as it brings into his life Pari Walia (Sonam Kapoor), who gives him much needed feedback on his low-cost pads, and support in his sanitary quest. And you want to applaud Lakshmi’s gumption and resilience to pursue his obsession – much like Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith in the chilling Zodiac or Sam Worthington’s Jim Fitzgerald in Manhunt: Unabomber – all looking for ways to seek closure, somewhere forgetting why they started their projects, and letting themselves get extracted of everything dear to them. In that, Pad Man makes you think of how big a social price a grass-root innovator pays in a society strung together by norms, where even the victimized hang on to, and tie these strings in ever-tightening knots of shame and prejudice. The pad might come cheap, but its manufacturer has paid a very heavy price.

Akshay Kumar - fluffy dreams are made of these
Akshay Kumar: fluffy dreams are made of these.

But Pad Man could have done much more, been so much more. Director Balki entertains, but is almost trepidant when it comes to depicting women who have menses to deal with. In his world, these women are all pretty gung-ho, having had no problems with the unhygienic ways they go about during their periods. There’s talk of health issues, but nothing concrete. There’s no mess, in short. It’s all too clean and sanitized, when it isn’t in real life and oughtn’t have been onscreen. I’d have much rather been shocked and stunned by scenes that didn’t have the pressure of investor-ROI hanging over them. I also wanted some no-holds barred scenes on how women are treated during these days, for that is part of the social stigma and shame that menstruation carries with its bloody arrival, of how they aren’t allowed inside temples, allowed to pray at home, or touched or be touched ( a cursory reference is made to the last point.) And in that sense, the movie’s stunted by its urban, cool approach, where Lakshmi is introduced to the word “chums”, that he then proceeds to use in his talk at the United Nations. Whereas, the root of Arunachalam’s and hence Lakshmi’s journey was the stigma – social and health – that periods carry and which carried them as well.

The other problem with the movie is the Lakshmi-Pari angle, that eats into, and deviates from the main focus. To me, this isn’t all about Lakshmi – it’s also about the women he’s seeking to empower, release, and educate. That alas, is lost in this simmering-in-the-background laws of attraction sub-story. Which is why, when it ought to have punched you in the gut, it pats you and lets you be.

Akshay Kumar, Sonam Kapoor - travelling will bury distances
Akshay Kumar, Sonam Kapoor: traveling will bury (distances).

And in all this, Radhika Apte is very good, mirroring how shame can drive women into hushing their problems. Sonam Kapoor is surprisingly chirpy and as effective as she can be, though in some scenes she did seem a little detached by it all, perhaps mulling over the manufacturing process. But in what was perhaps preordained and is also ironical, the movie is dominated by Akshay Kumar. His act is simply superb, him mixing whimsical humor with an earnestness that’s a newly acquired tool in his, er, machinery. He puts in a finely-tuned, nicely-paced performance – note the scene where he’s quietly delighted his wife’s gotten her periods, so he can get her to use his hand-made pads; or that indulgent look when she’s so devoutly standing in front of idols that are machinated to evoke awe and fear. In Pad Man also does he take some bolder steps, as in the scene where his character experiments wearing the pad himself, and then experiences the horrifying embarrassment of a blood-stain in public. For that and making even a very trope- speech-scene appear sincere, his is a truly admirable and heartwarming act.

Pad Man, then, works within the unfortunate limitations it sets upon itself, but you can’t help but think that it lays too thick a layer of drama and veil that tastes nice, but does nothing for your cinematic cholesterol; that, in being too sanitary in its approach, it took a nap where instead, it ought to have powered your senses into stupefied awakening.

Padman (2018) on IMDbMovie data powered by IMDb

Life is a Cinema Hall ratings
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5): Don’t bother
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5): Not too great
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5): Worth a watch
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5): Very good
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW

Pad Man is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s  references to female menstruation that the censors fear will prompt children to ask questions about, making parents see red.

Pad Man
 R. Balki Running Time 2h 20 min
Writers R. Balki, Swanand Kirkire
Stars  Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte, Sonam Kapoor
Genres Biography, Comedy, Drama

Watch the trailer of Pad Man here:


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