Padman, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Mary Kom — Bollywood has often distorted reality for sake of adherence to popular tropes
The makers took the 'creative liberty' to transport the setting of Padman from Coimbatore to Madhya Pradesh in order to gain a wider reach.
Some years ago, a budding actor agreed to play the love interest of the second lead in a Salman Khan film despite both the film as well as the role was far from what she would have ideally associated with. The reason was simple — she could struggle endlessly to land that one role that would change it all but being in a Salman Khan film has its own advantages — come the Friday of the film’s release and the entire country would know of her. Such is the influence of popular Hindi cinema and this is not limited to an actor or a genre.
In fact, a mainstream Hindi film, or for that matter any variant of popular cinema across India, can do wonders when it comes to furthering a social issue as there are truly few avenues that could even come close to the reach and access of a popular film star in this part of the world. It is this factor that is at play in the case of R Balki’s new film that brings to life the story of one of India’s the greatest social entrepreneurs, a man who may have touched the lives of thousands of women and yet remains, in the manner of speaking, comparatively nameless.
Up until the release of Padman, barring the ones familiar with an exceptional TED Talk that made him a household name, only a few would have known the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the inventor of the low-cost sanitary pad-making machine. But post 9 February, millions across the world not only knew about Muruganantham and his innovating grassroots mechanisms for generating awareness about traditional unhygienic practices around menstruation in rural India but also how he created a machine that could manufacture sanitary pads for less than a third of the cost of commercial pads. A large part of this is most likely due to the presence of an immensely popular star such as Akshay Kumar in the role of the character inspired by Muruganantham.
Originally, the role was to be played by a newcomer or an actor from Tamil films, as Twinkle Khanna, who produced the film did not want her husband Akshay Kumar's brand to overshadow the narrative. Ultimately, Murugananatham insisted on Akshay Kumar as he felt that the message of the film would reach millions and could be a “game-changing event” if a superstar idolized and looked up to by men wore a sanitary pad on screen. In the end, Kumar, too, was clear on not making a documentary but “a commercial film” so people can see and talk about.
The commercial Hindi film format comes at a cost but it also ensures eyeballs and reach in terms of viewers unlike any other. It is a testimony of the impact that the popular Hindi film template wields as well as what it can achieve that the legendary athlete Milkha Singh reportedly charged one rupee as fee from Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra to tell the world his story in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag(2013). At times, creative liberties threaten the narrative’s authenticity. For instance, in Mary Kom (2014), where instead of an actor from Manipur, the state where Mary Kom hails from, a Priyanka Chopra was cast as Mary Kom, or in Dangal (2016) where Mahavir Singh Phogat was shown to be locked in a room when his daughter was competing even though, in reality, he was at the ringside but the audiences is smart enough to apply discretion.
There was a great deal of criticism in the way the narrative of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) or Border (1997) used far too many popular ‘Bollywood’ tropes to support the basic premise but irrespective, their payoff was substantial. While the former used satire to highlight government and social drives to improve the sanitation conditions and eradication of open defecation, the latter merged different real-life people and situations from the Battle of Longewala, one of the major engagements in the western sector during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, to come up with one singular account. The events depicted in JP Dutta’s Border might not have taken place the way they were portrayed but thanks to its ‘Bollywood’ format, presence of stars such as Sunny Deol, Jackie Shroff and Suniel Shetty and the then-promising newcomer Akshay Khanna, the film did more to the image of the armed forces than any other campaign in decades.
There have been far too many instances when Hindi cinema has changed details, distorted facts and even undone historical truths. Although it might be hard to believe at times it is the format itself that makes certain demands considering the core audience that it caters to and there is enough evidence to suggest that the audience is not as gullible as it is made out to be. Of course, this cannot be compared with a complete whitewash of reality or twisting it beyond recognition perhaps to give an impression that it is something else without enough empirical evidence. Yet the question that one needs to ponder upon is this — is the cost that Bollywood elicits worth it?
Despite the cinematic liberties that Padman takes, such as transporting the story from Coimbatore to Madhya Pradesh, transforming the identity of the lead character from a south Indian to a north Indian or even Kumar’s presence, which in itself could tantamount as its biggest artistic license, it is these elements that could make Muruganantham, the man and what he stands for, a part of our popular culture and perhaps, in a way, even folklore too. Great cinema somewhere draws on emotions that might not be wholly rational but celebrate a moment, a thought and also a sense of pride amongst people. If done in a way where the symbolism is not taken at the cost of the bigger message, nothing can be more potent than a masala Hindi film.
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