Padman movie review: Akshay Kumar is charming in an entertaining but problematic film
There is so much in Padman that is enjoyable and meaningful. But there's also some needless sexism (about a true mard being one who can provide raksha (protection) to the women in his life) and an exasperating north-Indian-isation of Muruganantham, which you can't get over.
Akshay Kumar is charming.
Arunachalam Muruganantham redefines the word fascinating.
Separately, Kumar’s charisma and Muruganantham’s saga are remarkable ingredients for any film. Together though, they are Padman’s failing and its strength.
Muruganantham’s life has been widely chronicled by journalists and was the subject of the excellent documentary Menstrual Man by Amit Virmani released in 2012. A poor school dropout from Tamil Nadu, Muruganantham invented a low-cost production system for sanitary napkins when he saw his wife using dirty, unhygienic home-made cloth pads during her periods. His methods, media reports tell us, have now become both a source of inexpensive, clean sanitary pads and income for rural women across most Indian states as he spearheads a movement to install these hand-operated machines in villages where they are run by women entrepreneurs.
The journey to this place has come at great personal cost. At first, shocked that a man would concern himself with menstruation – a subject that remains taboo in many communities in India – he was boycotted by locals and even his family who deemed him a pervert. Today, of course, he is an award-winning innovator of global repute who has earned the respect of his people and his parivaar.
In writer-director R. Balki’s hands, Muruganantham has become Lakshmikant Chauhan, a poor man from Madhya Pradesh who notices his bride using filthy rags in place of pads, is shocked at the high cost of sanitary pads available in the market and thus sets off on the same road taken by our real-life hero.
If you view Padman in a vacuum bereft of context, it is entertaining and, for the most part, sensible. How do you do that though after Muruganantham has acquired such fame, unless you have been sleeping under a rock?
Knowing that this is the biopic of a real person who has been changed from Tamilian to north Indian in the script so that a north Indian megastar could play the part makes Padman an example of so much that is wrong with north Indian cinema and our society as a whole.
The north-Indian-isation of a southerner is becoming somewhat of a routine practice in Bollywood – and Kumar its foremost practitioner.
The heroics of a Malayali man called Mathunny Matthews and others in the Middle East were turned into the tale of a fictional Punjabi called Ranjit Katiyal (again played by Kumar) for Airlift in 2016. Late last year, the experiences of a group of Malayali nurses who escaped captivity in Iraq after their hospital was taken over by ISIS (recounted so beautifully in the Mollywood film Take Off) was rewritten as an account of a swashbuckling fictional espionage agent called Avinash Singh Rathore (Salman Khan) rescuing them in the Bollywood film Tiger Zinda Hai.
The message from Bollywood is clear: the definitive, normative Indian is a northerner, Hindu, upper caste and male, while the rest of us are exceptions.
The difference between Airlift and Padman is that Matthews was little known outside Kerala, and therefore it was possible to place him on the backburner of the mind while watching the film. The difference between Tiger Zinda Hai and Padman is that Tiger positioned itself as over-the-top commercial fare that is not to be taken seriously, whereas Padman’s narrative style is such that it asks to be taken seriously.
This is, of course, heartbreaking, because barring this troubling truth, Balki tells his story with efficiency and, by and large, with sensitivity. It is wonderful to see a mainstream film pulling menstruation out of the realm of whispers. Besides, Kumar is a delight to watch, never more so than when he absolutely kills a speech delivered by Chauhan at the United Nations. He has an irresistible screen presence, Radhika Apte is flawless playing his wife, and the packaging – pleasant music, Kausar Munir’s breezy lyrics that resonate with meaning – makes the first half in particular completely engrossing.
(Spoilers in this paragraph) By the second half, Padman stumbles. One reason is the insertion of a character called Pari Walia as an MBA student who decides to help Chauhan/Muruganantham in his business. Sonam Kapoor is sweet as the fictional Ms Walia until the silly contrivance of a romance between her and the hero, which is hurriedly forced into the narrative. This terribly unconvincing angle sullies their segment because the writing does not convey a progression of emotions up to the point where she expresses her feelings for him. This is possibly the reason for the zero chemistry between the two stars (it does not help that Kapoor looks young enough to be Kumar’s daughter here). (Spoiler alert ends)
It is here too that Padman’s conflicted gender politics surfaces along with its limited understanding of the taboo around menstruation. Balki and his co-writer Swanand Kirkire seem to assume that two characters of the opposite sex played by two glamorous stars cannot possibly be just friends.
Besides, the early part of the film went into not just the need for affordable sanitary napkins in Chauhan/Muruganantham’s town, but another crucial issue: the social assumption that a menstruating woman is inauspicious and polluted, which is why women in so many communities are forced to stay out of the house, away from family and society, on those days of the month. By the end of Padman, the availability of sanitary napkins miraculously and without explanation leads to the end of the stigma too. This is a simplistic supposition, disappointing considering how well the subject of menstruation is dealt with in the first half.
For a film that is about self-sustenance among women, there is also some needless patriarchal dialoguebaazi about a mard being one who can provide raksha (protection) to the women in his life.
That said, there is so much in Padman that is enjoyable and meaningful. Muruganantham’s bio is so incredible that if you did not know his is a true story you might have refused to believe it. Kumar and Apte deliver engaging performances. And Balki says what he has to say with a light touch and in a non-preachy tone.
While watching Padman I tried my best to get over my exasperation at the Chauhanisation of Muruganantham. It was hard.
Balki has said in an interview that his purpose was to take a message to a larger audience that Hindi cinema affords (especially since the Hindi belt is worse off in the matter of menstrual hygiene than the rest of India), that casting Kumar was part of this effort, that in any case he could not envision anyone but Kumar in the role and that it would have been unnatural to set a Hindi film in Tamil Nadu. Hmm, I wonder how we would have felt if Richard Attenborough had decided that it would be unnatural to set an English film in India, had rewritten Mahatma Gandhi as a white Briton leading India to freedom and had cast a famous white actor in the role, all with the claim that he wanted to spread the message of ahimsa far and wide. Same thing, no?
There is a lot I liked about Padman, but a lot that bothered me about it too.
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