Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte, Sonam Kapoor
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Strolling through social media, you may have recently stumbled across the hashtag #padmanchallenge, which has seen some of Bollywood’s biggest stars proudly posing with sanitary pads. It’s part of a campaign to remove the stigma, and raise awareness, around menstruation hygiene in India, where the Ministry of Health reports 70% of women say they cannot afford to buy sanitary products. The social media movement also ties in with Padman, the latest film from Bollywood director R. Balki, based on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the inventor of the low cost sanitary pad.
Akshay Kumar plays Arunachalam, now renamed Lakshi Chauhan for the purposes of this fictional retelling of his life. Recently married to Gayarti (Radhika Apte), the naïve villager Lakshi is alarmed to discover that his wife must stay outside their home during her menstruation. Upon finding that Gayarti uses a dirty rag due to the cost of sanitary products, Lakshi sets about trying to find her a cheaper, more hygienic alternative.
Padman mines a lot of its comedy from Lakshi’s attempts to create the perfect pad, including test-driving his prototypes himself when no one else will. Indeed, a lot of the humour comes from men’s reactions to periods (or ‘the five-day test match’ as one boy calls it) and is not aimed at the women themselves. In turn, Padman doesn’t demonise them for their beliefs, rather it chooses to highlight issues it wants its audience to consider and rethink. This a film that’s aware that things need to change at the top in order to help those at the bottom. When it does put the beliefs, as they are, under the microscope, it does so via Lakshi, who struggles to comprehend why his wife will pay 50 rupees for a blessing at temple, but not for a pack of sanitary pads.
There’s a danger that Lakshi could be played as a preaching saviour to all, but Balki, coupled with Kumar’s charming performance, wisely portrays him as a man whose tenacity needs to be tempered at times. He charges into his wife’s affairs with good intentions, which only makes her and the women around him dig their heels in further. As is pointed out to Lakshi, he is after all a man, and what do men know of such things. As such, Padman also works as a parable about masculinity and how perhaps – shock, horror – men don’t always immediately know everything.
Despite the film’s good intentions, it’s not above criticism. When Lakshi meets his eventual business partner, the progressive urbanite Pari (Sonam Kapoor), the film tries to tease a love triangle out of the situation, which never feels convincing. Like the numerous montages of Lakshi failing to do something, only to eventually get it right, it all feels a bit superfluous and stretches the runtime past where it needs to end.
That said, as far as films with social messages attached to them go, Padman is a joyful piece of work that manages to play lightly with serious subject matter, without ever feeling like it’s trying to patronise its audience. And if it can make at least one person change their habits, that’s got to be a good thing.