The best thing about Pad Man is not a sanitary napkin

Akshay Kumar's Laxmikant isn’t just an advocate for menstrual hygiene.

 |  4-minute read |   09-02-2018
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When there’s blood, there will be war. Only Laxmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar) is a solitary soldier with a tougher foe: an orthodox mindset hell-bent on holding on to outdated practices. His cause is connected to his heart: providing his wife, Gayatri (Radhika Apte), a sanitary napkin which can protect her from infection. In the R Balki-directed biopic of Arunachalam Murugananthan, the Coimbatore-based innovator and social activist, Chauhan’s concern for his wife and every woman’s wellbeing is misconstrued for sickness, craziness and perversion.

R Balki and co-writer Swanand Kirkire set out to immediately establish the husband-wife bond which is paramount to Pad Man, and also sows seeds of Chauhan’s feminist roots. As the sole male member of the family, he is shown to be a sensitive son, brother and husband. The drama here is that opposition to his progressive thinking comes first from within his family.

Without resorting to a holier-than-thou attitude, Balki sets out to challenge the taboos and stigma associated with menstruation. There is a modicum of humour deployed while dealing with a serious topic such as when Chauhan taunts the medical shop owner if he is being sold “charas or gaanja” in the manner he is handed the packet of pads. It’s called Fly Free and its steep price appals Gayatri, who doesn’t want her husband’s money wasted on it especially when she can manage with a cloth.

Pad Man succeeds in setting up the milieu which pushes the diligent Laxmikant to think out of the box – start out by hand to make his own sanitary napkin before turning to technology – and the shy Gayatri to cling to the beliefs which have been embedded in her since long. Marital bliss is disrupted when she asks him why is he so interested in the area between a woman’s legs. When Laxmikant creates a mess on the ghats of Narmada, his reputation is tarnished to the tee. Time’s up for him. With Gayatri gone and the citizens of Maheshwar rebuking him, Laxmikant’s humiliation only strengthens his resolve to find an affordable, effective and hygienic alternative to his earlier failed innovation.

pads_020918015538.jpgPad Man has let go off all subtlety as it sets about to put its subject on a pedestal. 

It’s from here that Pad Man loses its fluid flow even as, for the most part, it sticks to Muruganantham’s journey of making the four machines that would win him the Innovation award. Laxmikant aka Pad Man is sulking alone on the streets of Mandu at night when an angel enters his life – Pari (Sonam Kapoor). It helps that she is in dire need of a pad. It’s a moment that draws laughs for its barely disguised contrivance but it’s also a rare way to show a hero as a saviour in Bollywood. Pari finds her knight in pad-equipped armour, Laxmikant his first customer. The damsel in distress eventually becomes a saviour as she guides the superhero to the right direction.

By now Pad Man has let go off all subtlety as it sets about to put its subject on a pedestal. The endeavour is great only the depiction of his struggle and philanthropy doesn’t hold. The incidents set up for Laxmikant’s growth are rushed and lack both narrative and emotional punch. Soon, the tried-and-tested Balki trope arrives – Amitabh Bachchan cameo. Only this one doesn’t match up to the earlier efforts and is preachy, with Bachchan in full Incredible India ambassador mode.

The dialogues get heavy-handed as Laxmikant is lectured before he goes on to deliver a lengthy lecture himself at United Nations. It’s a pity for until then Akshay Kumar has convincingly demonstrated all the virtues that make Muruganantham so endearing – his earnestness, his obliviousness to his greatness and his devotion. With the speech, inspired by Muruganantham’s TED Talk and other lectures, full of sloganeering and an applause and laugh track Balki looks to give Kumar the actor the stage to showcase his range in broken English, perhaps to make a case for National Award two. Somewhere in this playing to the gallery moment, Muruganantham’s mission gets lost.

Nonetheless, Pad Man’s social message here is delivered in a more understated manner than Kumar’s other cause-driven film Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. A chunk of Pad Man’s appeal lies in the inspiration – Arunachalam Muruganantham. He isn’t just an advocate for menstrual hygiene but also an example of a man curious about and considerate of a woman’s needs. That should be the biggest takeaway from Pad Man.

Also read: How Khiladi Kumar went on to become National Award-winner Akshay Kumar

Writer

Suhani Singh Suhani Singh @suhani84

The writer is Senior Associate Editor, India Today.

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