R Balki’s PadMan has a scene where the newly married protagonist gifts his menstruating wife a sanitary napkin that he made just for her. He just doesn’t give it to her, also adds a punch line – “For your safety.” Quintessentially, PadMan is about sales and marketing. It has the spiel, and it squeezes in melodrama and tears in a story based on the life of A Muruganantham, a Coimbatore man who spent many years working on a low-cost sanitary pad manufacturing machine. Muruganantham’s magnificent life-story gets the treatment of a television brand commercial.
Muruganantham’s life has been the subject of an acclaimed documentary, Menstruation Man. But for Bollywood, it isn’t powerful enough. The film credits the story concept to Twinkle Khanna, the co-producer of the film, and Muruganantham gets a blink-and-you-miss-it tribute at the end of the film, just before the credits start rolling. All non-glitzy elements have been removed from the story, and that includes Muruganantham himself. His identity as a school dropout from an impoverished family of handloom weavers in rural south India gets modified on screen as an upper-caste man named Laxmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar) in a town in Madhya Pradesh. It isn’t a minor alteration which can be easily passed in a terribly skewed world where a large section of people are underrepresented or misrepresented in our popular culture.
In PadMan, the protagonist’s struggles come across as utmost simple. Laxmi’s life was a placid lake until one day, he finds out that his wife uses pieces of rugs while she is menstruating. Branded sanitary napkins are unaffordable, so Laxmi sets out to make low-cost napkins that the women in his village can use. The only villain he has to fight throughout the film is the shame and taboo around menstruation. Laxmi needs money to buy machines. So he goes to a moneylender, falls on his feet, and starts massaging him. The man falls for it, and some funny massaging sequences later, the Shylock lends him the money. Laxmi’s family abandons him, but as soon as they see a picture of him with Amitabh Bachchan on the front page of a newspaper, they weep with joy.
From being a ‘muse’, Laxmi’s wife, Gayatri (Radhika Apte) slowly becomes the villain of the story – the one person hurting Laxmi the most. Her character is grossly one-note, the kind of leading lady our superstar films settle for because of complacency. She is the archetype of what the film assumes to be a village belle. Laxmi is fixated with sanitary napkin, and Gayatri shivers and shrieks like a maniac every time he mentions the word pad or menstruation. At one point, she abandons him because he has been walking around wearing a napkin to test its efficiency. In his TED Talk, Muruganantham, in his singular humorous style, mentions the divorce notice that he received from his wife. On screen, the couple’s relationship is melodramatically sanitised. The film bases Laxmi’s relentless pursuit of the technique to make low-cost sanitary napkin entirely on his deep-rooted love for his wife. But it never wonders what makes Gayatri such a freak, or never explores any other side of her persona. All we get is a song sequence where she dances in pretty clothes with a group of women in a place that looks like a sanctum sanctorum, celebrating the first period of a girl from the neighbourhood.
Most of all, PadMan is loud; like how Toilet Ek Prem Katha was, but with a better technical department. It preaches, and is unapologetic about being a movie whose prime intention is to preach and patronise. Almost in every sequence, you get a quotable quote and a politically correct character representation. “What is a man who can’t make his woman feel protected?,” Laxmi tells a friend who asks him why was he wasting his time making sanitary napkins.
Pari’s (Sonam Kapoor) father, a high-profile professor, is a widower who says proudly that he once attended a culinary class to cook chicken for his daughter. “I was the only man attending the class,” he tells Laxmi, adding, “To feel more manly, sometimes we will have to discover the woman in us.” However sweet the dialogue might sound, it juts out of the film. You know he is in the screenplay so that Laxmi can share his emotions and smile, winking at the audience. Characters are sans any complexities, or at least we hardly feel there is anything more to their persona than what meets the eye.
Akshay Kumar is earnest as PadMan, but not a great actor who brings out the minute details of the character. There are no midpoints in his emotional arc. He either laughs like a Santa Claus or be downcast gracefully. In a different movie which has a screenplay that goes beyond the stereotypical moments, Kumar would be a terrible miscast. Sonam Kapoor is just right for the role of a young MBA graduate who rejects high-paying jobs to try her hand at grass-root level social service, falls for the first person she works with, and ends up flying abroad for a high-paying corporate job.
PadMan is a film meant to educate the audience. The ticket price is the tuition fee, and in all possibilities, the film will collect huge from the box-office. It has reduced a wonderful life-story into a tea-time snack, but what is the point of calling out a school civics textbook for being superficial and boring?
The PadMan review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.