Director: R. Balki
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte, Sonam Kapoor
I never imagined I would see a Hindi film in which the hero, played by an A-list star, puts on a sanitary pad and then squats several times to make sure it sits right. So firstly, big applause to Akshay Kumar and Twinkle Khanna for putting their might behind this incredible true story that puts periods and female hygiene in the spotlight.
Pad Man is the cinematic adaptation of the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school drop-out from Coimbatore who invented a low-cost sanitary pad making machine. Twinkle first adapted it as a short story in her book The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad. Muruganantham revolutionized menstrual hygiene in the country. His story is extraordinary – at one point, when no woman including his wife, was willing to give him genuine feedback, he did wear pads himself to test them. Honestly, if this wasn't true, you wouldn't believe it.
As long as Pad Man sticks to the fantastical true story, it holds. Within the first few minutes, director and co-writer R. Balki establishes that mechanic Lakshmikant Chauhan is unlike any other man in this village in Madhya Pradesh. He is extra-ordinarily caring and despite the lack of education, progressive. Lakshmi will create a cushioned cycle seat so that his wife can ride comfortably and devise a contraption for cutting onions so that she doesn't need to cry while doing it. When he discovers that she is using dirty cloth pieces during her period, he resolves to help not just her but all the women around him. But no good deed goes unpunished and Lakshmi finds himself cast out. It is declared that he is mansik roop se bimar – a madman.
Until the mid-way point, Pad Man has snatches of power and emotion. Some scenes feel like a labored public service announcement and the melodrama gets shrill in places but largely Balki and his co-writer Swanand Kirkire keep the story moving. Humour is used cleverly. And Akshay, with his toothy grin and determined earnestness, propels the narrative with the wonderful Radhika Apte providing strong support. Despite the broad strokes writing, this relationship grounds the narrative in an emotional reality. The locations in Madhya Pradesh are nicely captured by DOP P.C. Sreeram. There are lovely visuals of a line of neighboring homes, each with an identical verandah to which the women are banished when their period comes. And I enjoyed the title track by Amit Trivedi.
But Pad Man wobbles precariously as it becomes more fiction than fact. The writing gets unforgivably lazy. Especially with the character of Sonam Kapoor. She gets the thankless role of Pari – a tabla player who becomes Lakshmi's first client and cheerleader. We are told that her tabla skills are so good that 'poore Madhya Pradesh ko hila diya' but after that tabla is never mentioned again. The romantic angle between Lakshmi and Pari is the weakest link in the film – it's both unnecessary and unconvincing.
The story seems to disconnect from logic and reality. Amitabh Bachchan, credited as superhero Amitabh Bachchan, appears to give a speech on the innovative spirit of Indians. There is a montage of Lakshmi making his low-cost sanitary pad machine, which looks like a nicely lit undershirt commercial. And though Pad Man is firmly committed to women empowerment, some of the dialogue is painfully clumsy. At one point, a character says – mard hone ka maza ander ki aurat jagaane se hi aata hai.
Pad Man, a superman without the cape, is a memorable character. Like the real Pad Man, Lakshmi is self-deprecating and very funny – especially in the climactic speech at the United Nations. I wish the film matched his sparkle.