Phullu, why I watched it, and our hypocritical approach to menstruation
My husband excitedly showed our long overdue marriage certificate to a bunch of people who had been insisting we get one made soon. After a quick word of appreciation for our efforts, the conversation veered towards my maiden surname on the legal paper.
In all fairness, it was a rather short discussion, which ended with my father-in-law’s final words, “It doesn’t matter. Not changing your surname is a trend today.”
Whether a woman is at her parents’ or in-laws’, she is expected to adhere to certain rules or do things in a way that pleases society. “Do not wear short clothes,” “Don’t go for night outs”, “Dry your bra and panty below a towel so that nobody sees it” and of course, “Nobody should ever see your sanitary napkin. It must not be thrown in the common dustbin, but hidden in some corner, wrapped in sheafs of paper and disposed in the bin just before the society housekeeping staff collects the garbage in the morning.”
It’s frustrating to be treated like a culprit, to be made to feel guilty and ashamed for something that’s as natural as breathing or sleeping.
You then come across a film poster, out in public, where a man is sleeping on a sanitary pad. The poster is of a Hindi feature film on menstruation, which will be screened in multiplexes across the country. Bravo!
For me, Phullu was a must-watch for the sheer feeling of liberation I experienced, on learning about a movie based on the subject that is a taboo in the most educated and sophisticated of households. I remember that as children, both my brother and I would be intrigued to see sanitary napkin ads not knowing what they were about. Enticed by the TV commercial, my brother once asked out loud at the dinner table (we lived in a joint family) why we didn't buy what seemed to be a most effective product. He was hushed by my grandmother and other women in the house. Since then every time sanitary napkin ads were broadcast, one of the elders would change the channel.
The environment in school, college and office was quite similar. You asked for a pad from your friends in hushed tones. Hid it in your pocket and rushed to the wash room. Letting men know that you were menstruating was a big no! And then there was the embarrassment of soiling your skirt, frock or salwar kameez. I remember so many of my friends carried a jacket or a sweater to tie around their waist in case of what we called a ‘disaster’. And if a poor girl’s pad did leak and stain her dress, she would be reduced to tears and I am sure, scarred for life.
On the other hand, when it came to going to a temple, your elders ensured that everyone knew you were having your periods. Time and again I was made to stand outside the temple while the others went in. “What would I say if somebody asked?” My mom would say, “Don’t worry they won’t. They all know the reason.”
So if they all know, then why is menstruation treated like a state secret, which has to be guarded with all your life and self-esteem and pride? Standing there outside a temple felt worse than being punished in class.
Watching Phullu, despite its bad production quality, performances, unwanted songs and a flagging storyline, is perhaps my way of telling people that menstruating doesn’t make us criminals. It’s a natural process and as the film says it’s not a ‘rog’ (disease) and sanitary napkins are not time bombs.
I liked bits of the film. One segment glorified a sanitary napkin, when Phullu works in a factory that manufactures them. It makes viewers look at pads as a necessity. The film touches upon many subjects such as low awareness about sanitary pads, problem of infection, its high cost, the middle man’s commission and government’s inaction, but doesn’t do justice to these issues.
I’d expected a lot out of the movie. I wanted it to break taboos on menstruation. I wanted it to tell the audience how Phullu managed to convince the women in his village to use a pad and in turn help the viewers do the same. I wanted Phullu to confront the orthodox thinking in his village and also see him succeed. I wanted Phullu to give a fitting answer to all those who belittle women for menstruating. I wanted Phullu to become my voice and tell people to stop their age-old nonsense.
But Phullu didn't do this, and I returned home disappointed.
Perhaps the story-teller is a realist and not a dreamer like me. He wasn’t out there to fight anybody else’s fight. He wanted to tell a story in all its honesty and present the truth.
The truth is we don’t want to change. The quality of the movie is surely to be blamed, but also the fact that the Central Board of Film Certification decided to rate it as an adult film even though it doesn’t have a single obscene scene, not even a peck on the cheek or any bad words. Across Navi Mumbai, the movie plays only in one theatre, screened at its premiere lounge, for which I paid Rs 450. No wonder I was the only one in the cinema hall.