“I not study IIT, but IIT study me” — In the trailer of Padman, which releases on 9 February, we see Akshay Kumar, who plays social entrepreneur Laxmikant Chauhan, summing up his educational qualification in broken English as he addresses a large audience. It is easy to assume that it is one of the ‘creative liberties’, taken by the filmmaker (R. Balki) and the star, to add colour to the personality of the real-life character it is based on, who must be too dull for the movies. Two minutes into Menstrual Man, a documentary from 2013, we see Arunachalam Muruganantham, the real Padman, in the middle of one of his talks, bringing the house down with one of his little self-deprecating jokes. “You know my educational qualification study, 4 days in Philadelphia, 5 days in California,” he quips.
Murganantham’s is the kind of story that we would call implausible if we saw it in a movie. A man from a village does all he can to keep his newly wed wife happy. Sometimes, he brings her gifts; one day, he finds out that she has a problem she is reluctant to talk about. She’s been using old rags as sanitary pad, because they can’t afford it. Trying to find a solution to the problem, he goes on to devise machines that produce low-cost, hygienic sanitary pads to be operated by women of rural India. Among other things, he makes it to the TIME magazine list of Most Influential People and receives award from the President of India. In between, he loses his wife, who leaves him because of the social shame, and wins her back.
From what it looks like in the trailers, Muruganantham’s story, unsurprisingly, has been given the Bollywood treatment in Padman. Akshay Kumar’s Laxmi doesn’t look anything like Muruganantham; the story’s setting has been changed from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu to a village in Madhya Pradesh
Muruganantham is a mass communicator, one of whose tools is humour. Amit Virmani’s no-frills 52 minute documentary, available for paid viewing on YouTube, understands this and lets its subject tell his story in a colourful, amusing manner that is uniquely his own. In one ‘talking heads’ scene, he talks about the time he had misinterpreted an economic pyramid, when he received a call from a potential business partner. “Are you supplying your product in the bottom of the pyramid,” the person had said on the phone. The only pyramids Muruganantham knew were the ones in Egypt. Virmani uses his subject’s sense of humour to lighten up a serious story, interspersing the interviews and footage with ironically cheesy Hindi film scenes.
From what it looks like in the trailers, Muruganantham’s story, unsurprisingly, has been given the Bollywood treatment in Padman. Kumar’s Laxmi doesn’t look anything like Muruganantham; the story’s setting has been changed from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu to a village in Madhya Pradesh. There also seems to be another woman in the mix beside the wife (played by Radhika Apte), a social worker (Sonam Kapoor) who seems to be smitten by Laxmi. For the sake of mass entertainment and its power and reach, there’s nothing wrong in that. But no matter how ‘sanitised’ Padman turns out to be, it’ll owe to not just Muruganantham’s extraordinary story but also his sense of humour.