Adman-turned filmmaker R. Balki says he never hesitated in talking about menstruation. In fact, one of his first assignments in the advertising world was a campaign on sanitary pads. “My knowledge of pads and menstrual hygiene has been there for a long time,” says Balki, however, adding that he could never understand it with as much depth as Coimbatore-based Arunachalam Muruganantham on whose life Balki’s next, Padman, is based. He considers Muruganantham nothing less than a scientist. “I am not a woman, so I never sat and thought about sanitary pads. Yes, I have gone to the market and bought pads for my wife at times but never spent time thinking about menstrual hygiene like Muruga. I, in fact, learnt a lot from Muruga,” says Balki.
Like many men in India, Muruganantham learnt about menstruation pretty late in life. Even with two younger sisters, he always thought that it is a “dirty body function” that happens to women. However, once he got married, he understood it better when he saw his wife, Shanti, using rags during periods. A school dropout, Muruganantham couldn’t understand why his wife was not using a better, hygienic option (sanitary pad) available in the market. He later learnt that it was because of the high cost of sanitary pads.
“I wanted to gift my wife a packet of sanitary pads,” said Muruganantham, at the We The Women Summit. However, it wasn’t that easy. He covered 14 kms on a bicycle and then bought it from a shopkeeper who behaved as if he was smuggling something illegal. But, Muruganantham was only thinking about his wife’s hygiene. The only way he could change the scenario was by making low-cost sanitary pads. He started wearing a pad to understand the experience of wearing one and later, used the experience to invent a machine capable of producing low-cost sanitary napkins. The journey was been hard, but fruitful nevertheless.
His life story should be seen by all, says Balki. And, that is why the film is designed as a children’s film. “It’s very important to spread the message that Muruganantham began with his adventurous journey.” In an interview with THE WEEK, Balki talks about Muruganantham, making of Padman, collaboration with Twinkle Khanna and why it needed the star-power that came with Akshay Kumar. Read the excerpts:
Were you and Twinkle working on Muruganantham’s story simultaneously?
We both discussed the story and then decided to work on the story simultaneously. So the book and the film—both were completed at the same time, and yet, they were different adaptations of his (Muruganantham's) life. We both read each other’s finished work. Fundamentally, the story was written by Muruganatham—it is his life after all—which is really fascinating.
When you say different, how different is Twinkle and your narration?
Of course the commonality is his life, but cinematically, we have added characters and situations to the story. The issue has been portrayed through a journey, which is more cinematic in nature.
Neither Akshay nor you have done a hardcore biopic before this. What were the challenges? (Akshay’s Airlift and Rustom were inspired from lives of real persons, but were not biopics)
Akshay has done biopics before, but I haven’t. He has done Airlift, for example. Akshay is a phenomenal actor that way. For this film in particular, he studied Muruganantham, he understood him and his characteristics. He never tried to copy him though. He never tried to behave like him or act or talk like him. What he did was to absorb the essence of the character and interpret in his own way. And that I found very fascinating.
The biggest challenge in a film based on a real person’s life is to stay true to his life. I always tell Muruga sir: “You should see the film and not tell me, ‘Hey, I didn’t do this.’ You should tell me, 'Hey, I wish I had done this’.”
For many people Akshay is still a ‘hero’ from action films. What convinced you to work with him in a film about a taboo subject with a simple man as the hero?
There was not an iota of doubt. He, to me, is a superstar and a great actor. For me, he was like Muruga, a lot. He is a very simple person. He doesn’t think he is doing something great. Even if he jumps off a building, he does it effortlessly. He doesn’t call himself a great action hero. He actually undermines himself a lot. There is no big fuss about anything. Muruga is a lot like this. He went on doing things, not waiting and applauding his own genius.
It is a great thing to have a star like Akshay in a film like this. People will come to watch a film because of him and the experience will move them.
Akshay has been choosing scripts that are very different from the kind of films he did in the early years of his career. How easy is it for an actor to reinvent himself?
Number one, Akshay is a very intelligent person. Also, he is a very film savvy person, besides being very secure. He understands cinema and is interested in it. Like, his contribution to the script is phenomenal. The points that he added or the thoughts he brought in as an actor are phenomenal. We often undermine our stars by saying that they don’t do a certain kind of cinema. The fact is, those stars are very very intelligent. They do several things because they know where their brand is and what they are choosing. Akshay has chosen a path not just to do socially-conscious films, but a lot of films that are hardcore commercial films. That’s how he keeps the interest alive in Indian cinema. He is a man who tries and keeps on doing various things.
Unlike many (stars) who choose to do one film a year, he believes that it is easy to do four films a year as one film only takes 30-40 days…
(Cuts in) If an actor is as disciplined as Akshay Kumar. He is a man who is a fitness freak, gets up at five in the morning, trains, spends time with his family, and works. He is not partying or faffing. He is not attending many functions. He is shooting. A man who is constantly working and training his mind continuously has to be sharp. People like Akshay and Amitabh Bachchan are very disciplined. And they can do a lot more than a lot of indisciplined people like me.
Was it a team decision to shift Padman's release to avoid clash with Padmaavat's release?
When they (the Padmaavat team) approached us, we didn’t even think of it (shifting the release date). But, they told us that Padmaavat has gone through so much. We (Akshay and Balki) spoke about it and yes, we felt that the film has been through a lot. We needed to work towards getting it as many screens it can get since it was not releasing in many states. We decided to do something to help it. Also, we needed a clean week the release. Of course, the box-office collection would have suffered by 20 to 30 per cent, had we released the film the same week. We spoke about why we were doing this film—that is to have a conversation. Akshay Kumar’s film will have a certain box-office value; that is guaranteed. There will be a certain opening; that is also guaranteed. But it is not just about that. It is also about talking about an issue that nobody has spoken about. When you come with a film that is already embroiled in so much conversation, our conversation would have got diluted, which was very important factor for our film. As much as it made sense for Padmaavat, it made a lot of sense for us also to shift the release date. It worked both ways. It was a conscious and well-thought out decision.
Padman's promotional strategy included a social media campaign with many popular names from the film industry posing with a sanitary pad in their hand for the camera. We know pads exists. What lacks is that not many use it. How much would a campaign like this help?
It is not about awareness. A lot of women in urban areas use pads. But there are also a lot of people who are shy of even seeing a pad in public. The entire exercise of posing with pads is to tell people that there no shame (in holding a pad). Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar and Alia Bhatt are showing people that there’s no reason to feel shy. You’ll be surprised that a lot of people don’t know what is a (sanitary) pad or why is it used. Since I come from an advertising background, Muruga always told me that all (sanitary pad) advertisements show women jumping and running. ‘How is it possible?’, he often asked. He understood it is not possible because women are going to be in pain. Pads are basically about hygiene. And the manufacturers need to understand this. Once it becomes about hygiene, it will be better used. The reason for using a pad is not well-known. The film starts with a word ‘pad’. People are saying pad more than they would have said it in their entire lifetime. Stars displaying the pad in public will reduce the shame associated with it, little by little. I believe people are willing to listen and not talk about it. When that happens, you need one person to start talking about it so that you could join the conversation. We hope to start that conversation.