When Padman’s trailer caught my attention, I was immediately awestruck. Who could have dared to take such a topic so unconventional and so taboo, and then go on to make a movie out of it? It wasn’t surprising to see R Balki’s name as writer and director with Akhshay Kumar as the lead character who turns into a socially conscious and self-sacrificing feminist hero.
Balki’s flair for combining a socially relevant message with entertainment has earned him fame for making out-of-the-box movies with unusual concepts like Cheeni Kum, Paa, Shamitabh and Ki and Ka. This time he took a risk with a biopic, drama and comedy to address the most stigmatized topic of women whose very mention makes the public go all haw haye with shame and awkwardness – menstruation and sanitary pads.
But the period hygiene awareness campaigns and social media experiments weren’t generating the positive response the movie team had anticipated. Along with Padman’s ban in Pakistan, there was an angry outburst among the masses and ridiculous comparisons with condoms, breastfeeding, copulation, masturbation and defecating. This all further gave into the archaic notion of shame and the culture that perpetuates communal silence around the subject of menstruation.
Naturally, seeing and reading this social media uproar caused by a movie, I couldn’t wait to watch how Balki would strike a balance between a social cause and entertainment and when I finally did I was both pleased and moved.
There was literally nothing “haw haye”, cringy or shameful in all the 140 minutes of the movie. Despite whatever dirty assumptions people have made regarding it, there was no vagina flashing, no bloodied chaddis being thrown around, no one counting the blood clots and no one waving/shoving pads down anyone’s throat. That’s the beauty of the whole movie. It so respectfully tackles the societal taboo and religious stigma around menstruation, highlighting the poor hygiene and the health hazards that comes with using old, dirty and infected rags. If people are expecting a movie which would make teenagers giggle and be cheeky while women squirm uncomfortably in their seats, they are going to be disappointed.
Padman tells a compelling story of a man Lakhshmi Chauhan (Akhshay Kumar) a school dropout and a welder, whose obsession to prevent his wife, Gayatri (Radhika Apte) from getting an infection from her old dirty rags leads him to invent a low-cost sanitary towel machine. Inspired by real life journey of social activists Padmashiri Mr. Arunachalam Muruganantham, the movie highlights how his innovative grassroots mechanism for generating awareness about traditional unhygienic menstrual practices has done wonders for women in rural India.
To make a feature film on such a touchy taboo topic without hitting the awkward and/or obscene point even once, maintaining the sensitivity of the issue throughout and tailoring it for a conservative audience is something of a marvel, a phenomenal job indeed! They have kept the tone of the film light without making it too preachy. The emotions of the females, the belief system of social isolation and menstrual impurity, the celebration when a girl hits puberty and the cheekiness of the boys and the confusion of the male fraternity has been brilliantly captured in the screenplay. Even the medical shop person selling the pads as if he is involved in some drug deal is very much relatable!
The performances are outstanding and do justice to the characters. Pulled off effortlessly by one of the most versatile and underrated actors, Akshay Kumar shines in his portrayal of a goal-obsessed maniac. Radhika Apte is the perfect image of a rural housewife. Sonam Kapoor as Rhea, a marketing student with her lively and urban sensibility, plays a pivotal and instrumental role in bridging the gap between Lakshmi with his low-cost pads and the village women.
The movie is beautiful, emotionally moving, impactful and helps breaks stereotypes. There are many principal lessons the movie imparts on perseverance, identifying opportunities to make the world a better place and trials and tribulations of entrepreneurs. The movie remains true to its story in sending out the most crucial point regarding unhygienic and unhealthy menstrual practices. The use of old, dirty and infected cloths , leaves and ashes are the reason for many vaginal diseases and even death. The shame and taboo attached to the women’s issue stops girls and married women from seeking help hence they continue to suffer alone.
To ban a movie on one of the most important issues of the day is a public disservice. If our censor board has banned it using a religious context as excuse then the ALWAYS ads should be banned too. In comparison to the movie, the sanitary napkin ads seem more pointless, unproductive and uncomfortable than ever before. The movie consistently maintains a very respectful, mature, educating and compassionate approach towards women and periods throughout and the female audience wont feel uncomfortable at all watching it with the male members of the family. It is age appropriate and viewer friendly for children above 10 and for those planning to give a period talk to their pre teen kids, showing them Padman is a great way to start.
Padman may not have brought a change overnight but it has certainly forced people to contemplate regarding the social taboo, has opened up dialogues and tickled thoughts about internalized secrecy and shame. Many people felt the movie didn’t serve its purpose of reaching and educating the target audience, the rural, underprivileged and uneducated class. Subjects like these are only showed for attention seeking marketing tactics. People who haven’t watched the movie (ironically) like the FCB and the “we-know-it-all” folks continue to argue that the religious factor is sharam o haya and the privacy surrounding this women’s issue be respected. Pakistani celebrities like Hamza Ali Abbasi, Sanam Saeed and Armeena Khan Tweeted against the ban on Padman and got bashed by the aam janta.
The movie goes beyond the functional aspect of the pad, it also addresses the lack of emotional support, the shame, the guilt, the trauma and lack of empathy in families. Many young women have opened up about their struggle with periods and dealing with health conditions related to it such as PCOS, UTIs, vaginal infections and sores on all girls’ groups. Lack of proper care and support despite belonging to well off and educated families affected not just their physical but mental health as well. This toxic secrecy and silence continues to harm girls and women. It is not just a “women’s issue”, women deserve support and understanding from their families and male co-workers. How are we supposed to make our men understand the pain and health concerns if we keep guarding the women secret? How did staying quiet and faking all the rozas and namaz worked out in teaching our boys respectful and empathetic be it at home or professional spaces? There’s a whole generation of boys and men out there on Twitter and Facebook cracking crass period jokes and ignorant remarks because of how sick the period talk is making them.
One of the best points in the whole movie that stands out is the EMPATHY factor, shown by a man and it is so empowering and profound. His relentless pursuit to keep working for healthier options for his wife’s and sisters’ wellbeing is laudable. I hope all boys and men regardless of any social strata take away at least this heartfelt message from the movie.
This review is written by Hira Usman