Padman: R Balki says 'Nobody could've played the lead role except Akshay Kumar as without him, there's no reach'
After all his fictional tales so far — Cheeni Kum (2007), Paa (2009), Shamitabh (2015) and Ki and Ka (2016) — adman and filmmaker R Balki will attempt a biopic with Akshay Kumar-starrer Padman. The film is based on the life of the low-cost sanitary pad manufacturer, A Muruganantham and is slated to release on 9 February. In a chat with Firstpost, the director tells us how despite being based on a 'taboo' topic, Padman makes for a perfect family entertainer, why Akshay’s the best choice to play padman and how averting the clash with Padmaavat benefited both. Excerpts:
It requires guts to make a film on a taboo topic like menstruation. What was the most challenging bit?
To keep it entertaining because unless you entertain people, whatever noble things you have to say is a waste of time. So my job is to keep it entertaining, emotional, engaging and funny rather than preachy. But at the same time, it cannot be insensitive entertainment.
Is it because of this combination that you chose Akshay?
He was the only fellow in front of me so why won’t I think of him. Akshay asked me if I wanted to do a film on this topic. I thought about it and my problem was not anything to do with any actor but whether I should do a biopic or not. Then I realized that I will never get an opportunity to do a film on the topic of menstrual hygiene and it will be the first film of its kind in the world on a commercial level. Akshay solved my casting problem. Nobody could have played the role except Akshay. I like the way he is. He is very simplistic in his thinking, very non-intellectual. He doesn’t think, ponder and strategise but he comes to the point immediately. He doesn’t come across as an intelligent actor but he is far more spontaneous than the others.
But making a film like this is not risky as compared to the life that Muruganantham has led. He has sacrificed his whole life, whereas I am only sacrificing a film. His life is so entertaining, not preachy. He is a thriller by himself.
Are you confident that families will watch the film, despite the stigma around periods? There were rumours that one male actor refused to hold a pad in his hand...
While everybody was gung ho about this project there was this one person, an actor in a village who ran away when asked to hold a pad and that exactly is going to work for the film. We are always scared of what will people say but we are talking of people as they are today. We never ask people what they want to see. If you ask a person if he wants to see an ad on a pad and he would squirm but once you show it he would start suggesting ways of doing it differently. For every change to happen somebody must do it first. What’s the point in making a film that people are already comfortable talking about?
I don’t think anybody has said the word ‘pad’ as many times as in the last three to four months. You are not saying 'Padman' in a whisper, you are saying it loudly. Undoubtedly, it is a family film. When you see father, mother and daughter talking about it chances are that the next time the daughter has her period, father will ask her, ‘Shall I get you a pad?’ There are stories about how fathers, when the mothers were travelling, would run out to chemist shop in the night to get the pad. Since then the father-daughter bond has strengthened. So far daughters thought that they could discuss only certain things with their fathers. People are not scared or embarrassed, they just want someone to talk to first and then they join in. That is the mentality of life and the film shows that.
I also feel that men are getting more civilised and a little more sensitive about life. Humanity is progressing. I feel lot of men are going to be more affected by this film than a lot of women. That’s all that films can do, films are not some missionary campaigns beyond a point of time.
Do you think the film’s reach would have slightly suffered had Akshay not been there?
Slightly?! Without Akshay there is no reach. When you have a big star, more people automatically tune in, which is phenomenal. Akshay is doing a terrific job by doing these kind of films.
How have people reacted to the Padman trailer?
The day after trailer came out some of the people who would be watching all kinds of ghastly dubbed films on their mobile were set thinking. I actually saw a bunch of security guys and other people arguing after watching the trailer. Somebody was saying, 'Ya, I saw this packet in my wife’s cupboard, but that was green in colour whereas what they are showing is red'. Then the other guy said, ‘Yes, it happens, it happened to my daughter as well’. Can you believe a group of thugs discussing a topic they have never ever thought about before? It was a fantastic sight.
What’s your own experience with menstrual hygiene in your home?
I never had any taboo. I remember my mother used to sit outside the house, in the courtyard but I never asked her the reason. When I started my advertising career and was doing a campaign on pads, the kind of things I heard and discovered was so ghastly, it was so revolting that I was really shaken. Now I buy pads for my wife, Gauri and find some people looking at me strangely. But during the course of working on this film when I sat down with the NGOs while doing my research that is when I realized the depth of this problem. You just cannot address the problem by making people talk about it freely first. Surprisingly, menstrual hygiene is a big issue even in the United Kingdom besides Africa, Middle East, Latin America and Russia.
Was it bothersome that Padman was in the midst of clashes? Earlier with Padmaavat and then with Aiyaary? You now have a solo release
Earlier 2.0 was supposed to come on 26 January and hence we had pushed Padman to April because we can’t have two Akshay releases in the same week. When the plan for 2.0 changed we decided to come on 26 January. Then, Aiyaary decided to come on 26 January and we were fine because it’s a big enough day for two releases. Then Padmaavat announced the same date and besides being shrouded in controversies, we haven’t seen this kind of a mammoth project in recent past. Even those who had never seen any film in their life wanted to watch it and the film had already gone through a lot. Padmaavat team spoke to us and they needed the screens. It needed all the screens it could get. For us the advantage was simple. We aren’t sure about the box office numbers but what we would have definitely lost out on is conversation. We wanted the conversation about menstrual hygiene, pads, but in this gadar of Karni Sena, we wouldn’t have gotten the room for this conversation to happen. It can’t be Karni Sena versus menstrual hygiene, and in this conversation, Karni Sena would win because they are more violent. How could I have fought with Karni Sena? Padmaavat was a country movement and not just a film. With the kind of limitations they had, they would have taken a long time to recover if they lost 2000 screens. So both of us came to an understanding that let’s do something that is beneficial to us. They needed it far more than us.
The Aiyaary team seemed a little upset with the clash initially with Sidharth (Malhotra) saying it could have been avoided
(Aiyaary is now releasing on 16 February)
I would just say that let’s have another press conference and apologise to each other. I understand that nobody wants to have a clash but we were supposed to come together on 26 January originally. But even if we had come together both of us would have got the audience.
But now what to do, there are only 365 days & 52 Fridays. I am not thinking much about a good date or bad date, for me conversation is most important.
Did you know about Phullu before you began work on Padman?
(The makers of Phullu claim that theirs was the first film ever made on menstrual hygiene and it was released in June 2017).
No, there was no such film when we started writing. There were two documentaries though, one done by the BBC and the other by Al Jazeera. Muruganantham has not given the rights to anyone else except us. When we began our shoot, during the first schedule we heard of Phullu. I have not seen the film but we heard it was on sanitary pads and we were quite surprised. By the time we were done with Padman, Phullu was gone. They never claimed that it was based on Muruganantham's life and it would have been illegal for them to do so because he could have sued them.
Lastly, has the real life Padman seen the film?
He will see it the moment I finish it. I hope I’ve done justice to his life.
Updated Date: Feb 06, 2018 09:02 AM