Pad Man Movie Review: A Condescending, Glorified Public Service Announcement

This film is essentially a rural story about obsession and genius, but acquires an unmistakably urban gaze
Pad Man Movie Review: A Condescending, Glorified Public Service Announcement

Director: R. Balki

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte, Sonam Kapoor

Pad Man, a mainstream, proudly – and loudly – feminist Hindi film that will undoubtedly make hundreds of crores of rupees, is based on its lady producer's short story, which in turn is a commercial interpretation of the real life tale of a Tamil visionary whose very legacy is the antithesis of commercialization and privatization.

The "concept" is unequivocally credited to producer Twinkle Khanna. Because, of course, Padma Shri Arunachalam Muruganantham might never have existed if Ms. Khanna hadn't purchased the rights of his famous story. She, along with husband and superstar Akshay Kumar (as middle-India's "Lakshmikant Chauhan"), created him. And through Pad Man, she might have sold him (out), too.

If I were a character from the film, I'd already be urging you to examine the sarcasm of these sentences through an absurdly self-explanatory thought bubble or an internal voiceover. Because, in Lakshmi's perfectly segregated journey, every emotion is reported and every idea decoded, so that we don't dare to miss the tailor-made complexities and conflicts assigned to tailor-made characters. In fact the best parts of this unimaginatively accessorized film are the songs – or more specifically, the music that accommodates Tinkle-comics-like montages of our hero innovatively conceiving, stubbornly pursuing and methodically manufacturing the nation-changing product: low-cost sanitary pads. He is virtually Kalia the Crow in a crisp white shirt.

Again, it's ironic that for a film that insists on verbally advertising its progressiveness and importance, its wordless portions are far more agreeable. Perhaps this is because Pad Man is directed by ad-man, R. Balki.

Balki is a man who critiques his own film even as he makes it. In that sense, there is not much left for us to examine. If we wonder why a girl in love with a man lets him go, she will find an excuse to explain her rational mentality – the class divide, the old-school-versus-digital mindsets, the futility of one-sided affection – in the very next scene. If we marvel at how a humiliated man can walk away from his wife without once looking back, he will announce his motivations and mental strength even as he strides out of the frame. If we admire the inventiveness of the man when he customizes a machine part to perfection, he will think back to the moment during his blacksmith days that gave him this brainwave. Every other scene in his surroundings is peppered with lines ("You must test the swing before the kids use it!") that serve as unintentional nuggets of belated knowledge to him.

The filmmaker has made a career out of sanitizing the humanity and packaging the unorthodox ideologies of his protagonists into clean little multiplex cartons. He rarely leaves room for any rustic naturalism or, in other words, an ability to exist in context of the chosen environment.

As a result, even Pad Man, which is essentially a rural story about obsession and genius, acquires an unmistakably urban gaze – as much in detail, as in compulsive control of the intricately dotted "plot".

For instance, to introduce Lakshmi's freakish intellect, we are made to hear his mind quickly dissect the internal mechanism of "industrialized devotion" devices: he smiles wryly at a Hanuman idol that swallows coconuts and excretes its pieces, and rolls his eyes at a Lord-Krishna idol ingesting money and promptly ejecting sweets. Such images occasionally present themselves as the brainchild of an upscale-Juhu commentator determined to monetize the nuances of new-wave social activism.

The scandalized reactions of Lakshmi's family members and neighbours come across as heightened expressions imagined by a privileged mind that wonders how illiteracy and superstition must affect the temperament of the "other" India. Their fury and dialogue belong to the soapiest of operas – again a broad appropriation of a culture far removed from the writer's reality. Even as the man struggles to find women who will utilize his samples, they appear in different "breeds" – from burkha-clad wives and schoolgirls to medical students and pious nuns – as if to repeatedly reiterate the noble-minded democracy of his intentions.

The most noticeable example is Lakshmi's crowd-pleasing United Nations speech towards the end. This is essentially his victory podium. He insists on speaking in broken English to communicate his conviction of altering India's fragile socioeconomic fabric. In doing so, he reinforces the age-old cinematic misnomer of form over accent – the belief that a bunch of words strung together ungrammatically will convey a lack of education, even if the letters themselves are pronounced perfectly. Kumar isn't the first actor to "colonize" the notion of poverty, and he won't be the last.

Therefore it should come as no surprise that perhaps the most believable – and admirably idiotic – of characters is that of big-city girl, Pari, essayed by an unpretentious Sonam Kapoor. She is, after all, the only one the makers can truly admit they are familiar with. And so it's hardly offensive that she is ignorant, educated, naïve, pointlessly millennial and Lakshmi's only cheerleader. Pari serves as the lens for us to peer into the exotic world of redneck virtue. As if to compensate for her Sonam-Kapoor-ness, then, the makers establish Pari as a masterful tabla player waiting to secure a plush MBA placement.

I understand the need to make certain stories "accessible," but what about a man chasing an ambition against all odds at the risk of being disowned by his family isn't accessible – and infinitely novel – already? Who exactly can't fathom the magnitude of such an achievement – as is? What is so inaccessible about a South Indian pioneer that one felt the necessity to simply drop the region without completely committing to another (the Madhya Pradesh village goes unnamed)? It's this inherent distrust of facts to be stranger than fiction that causes so many like Balki and Ms. Khanna to patronize the core of organic greatness under the garb of social awareness.

This condescension of originality (a still photograph of the "real" Pad Man is flashed for precisely three seconds after the end credits) is almost as unattractive as the convenient serendipity of the narrative. Events occur around Lakshmi precisely when he needs them to. When he is down and out, a Pari ("angel") will appear. When he can't find an answer, Google shows him videos. When he runs out of ideas, a dog helps him. When the loan sharks come knocking, he instantly receives a phone call about a National Innovation Competition with a cash prize. When he rejects the corporatization of his initiative, he is presented with a dramatic scene – that of a newly single mother in need of work – to kick-start his manual venture.

Consequentially, his success eventually feels like a result of well-timed lucky breaks. Such an impression is difficult to shake off, given the curtness of Balki's compartmentalized storytelling. He loves his stars, and is forever prepared to convolute his rhythm in order to give them the stage.

Which brings me to Akshay Kumar's vast shadow over this film. The problem isn't in his performance, but in the directness of his character. It's in the way most of Hindi cinema's biopic makers choose to understand the idea of intelligence. Lakshmi's unconventionality, like that of many path-breakers, is supposed to be misunderstood. It is perhaps even appropriate that he displays a heightened sense of self-awareness by calling out bullshit on society's customs and inbuilt hypocrisy. But when someone like Kumar – or Priyanka Chopra, Farhan Akhtar, Shah Rukh Khan – plays the role of an outlier, he looks like a movie hero abruptly parachuted into this environment rather than a rebel analyzing his odds against the system. Instead of being an extraordinary product of his roots, Lakshmi perpetually sounds in a race to bolster his own legend.

He is meant to see issues that others don't, but he sees them through the eyes of a viewer and not a participant. When a chemist shadily hands him a pack of pads under the counter, it's not Lakshmi but Kumar reacting the way we would – with a wisecrack, almost breaking the fourth wall, as if he were an alien to his own culture up till then. It's why Rajkumar Hirani's PK works where others don't – it makes sense for an alien to have an identity crisis and teach humanity a lesson far more than it does for an enlightened human to visibly school his own race.

It's easy to dismiss Pad Man for the same reasons as Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Both are glorified PSAs with a superstar making a profit out of playing the savior of womanhood. There's solace to be found in the fact that Pad Man isn't as flimsily political and nationalistic as Toilet, and especially in the fact that the pre-movie National Anthem for once didn't look like the official opening shot of an Akshay Kumar-starrer. The flag-bearing trailer of his next, Gold, promptly accounted for this August's patriotic-drinking game.

But then again, there's no solace to be found in a scene that has a single Sikh father sympathize with Pad Man by delivering the most gender-fluid R. Balki line possible: "Baap hone ka mazza maa banne se aata hai" [The joy of being a father lies in being a mother]. In case it wasn't abundantly clear, he follows it up with: "Mard hone ka mazza andar ki aurat jagaane se aata hai."

Who let Ki & Ka's Arjun Kapoor grow old and gatecrash Pad Man's (vegetarian) party?

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