PadMan tries to accomplish too many things within its two hours and twenty minutes run time -- it tries to tell the story of a well-known Indian inventor Arunachalam Muruganantham, addresses women's menstrual health -- which is still considered to be a taboo in India, and also wants tell the love story of a rational man, Lakshmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar), and his superstitious wife, Gayatri (Radhika Apte), who fails to understand him. Not just that, it also aims to depict social entrepreneurship and women self-help groups while being entertaining as a film. It's tough to manage so many different feats in such a short time but surprisingly, PadMan successfully achieves most of it.
To begin with, R. Balki deserves a huge round of applause for making such an engaging film without the message getting lost. PadMan does have some boring moments but they are few and far between. For most parts, with dialogues worthy of being advertising catchphrase and tightly written scenes, the film maintains a momentum that keeps you involved.
The first half of the film is the exact retelling of incidents from Muruganantham's life. Arunachalam Muruganantham, for those who have been living under a rock, is an inventor and a social entrepreneur who revolutionized women's menstrual health in rural India by making simple, easy-to-use machines that can manufacture sanitary pads. His life has been made into a documentary, is the subject of another Bollywood film and has been chronicled by the media extensively. Therefore, each incident you see for the first hour of the film is something that you might have already read about or heard somewhere before.
When Gayatri uses dirty old rags during her periods, Lakshmi takes issue with it, calling it unhygienic. Lakshmi then goes to buy a pack of sanitary pads for her and realizes that they are extremely expensive. So, he begins making them himself. Each time he tries making sanitary pads, he fails. Slowly it becomes the mission of his life. It takes him years to manufacture a proper usable sanitary pad, and in the process, he is thrown out of the village for being a 'pervert' and deserted by his wife, mother, and sisters. These are incidents that actually happened in Muruganantham’s life and Balki recreates them effortlessly.
The film’s central theme is to send a social message across on menstrual hygiene and the lack of awareness and superstitions around it, and at no time does Balki lose sight of this. Lakshmi goes to a medical store in the film and says, "Sanitary pad chahiye" (I want sanitary pads), the chemist says, "Dheere bolo, yahan ladkiya hai" (speak softly, girls are standing next to you) pointing at two women customers standing at the counter of his store. Lakshmi answers,‘Aare, par who hi toh istemaal karte hai, toh dheere kyu bolu?’ (but they are the ones who use it, so why should I speak softly?). The girls giggle.
Balki aptly shows how menstruation is perceived in several societies across rural India. A loving mother restricts her teenage daughter from sleeping outside in the verandah on the day she has her first period. There is a full-blown desi first moon party in her honor, but then, all the social prejudices and traditions are followed and she is not allowed to enter the house for the duration of her period. Teenage boys call periods ‘test match’ because it goes on for five days, and men don’t talk, discuss and/or try to understand it. Giggles fill the room when Sonam Kapoor's Pari tries to sell pads to a classroom full of schoolgirls and women choose not to discuss it in front of men, considering periods something to be ashamed of. Lakshmi is the only one who challenges these prejudices and despite being socially disgraced and losing his family's support, he doesn't give up on his mission.
Though the first half of PadMan is restricted to incidents of Muruganantham's life, in the second half, Balki takes some creative liberties. The filmmaker's true ingenuity lies in how he interweaves facts with the screenplay and introduces a fictitious character, Pari. Played by Sonam Kapoor, Pari is the one who brings Lakshmi in to the national limelight by helping him win the President's Award for Innovation of the Year. She dumps a lucrative MBA job to help Lakshmi sell pads in different villages. Pari brings women together to form self-help groups and enables them to earn money by making sanitary pads using Lakshmi's machines. All these things sound boring and perhaps they would have been, if not for Akshay Kumar.
Kumar makes PadMan an entertaining watch. He has always had tremendous screen presence, which is what makes him a star, but with PadMan, the actor also delivers a genuine and heart-warming performance. Kumar's Lakshmi manages to make the audiences feel invested in his successes and accomplishments. Be it a lengthy UN speech, which Lakshmi delivers in broken English, (which he calls 'Linglish') or the time when he learns from Pari that his pads are exactly like the ones sold in the market, Kumar makes you want to be happy for Lakshmi.
Sonam Kapoor matches Kumar's performance in energy and spirit. What she lacks in acting skills, she makes up for with an affable screen presence and an envy-inducing wardrobe. Radhika Apte's Gayatri is relatable and layered. She looks the part and while Kumar and Kapoor's characters use many dialogues to communicate, Apte manages to with just her expressions.
However, despite Balki's claims, PadMan is not a classic love story. While there are romantic storylines in the film, one is dropped immediately after the first half and the second begins abruptly for no good reason almost ten minutes before the film ends. Although Balki begins by showing that love is the inspiration for Lakshmi's innovation, his obsession with manufacturing sanitary pads quickly takes over and becomes the one (and only) true love of his life.
Romance or not, the film advances at a good pace and thankfully picks up in the second half. The music of the film also adds to the storyline. With each song, we see the story advance, and if you cannot remember more than two tracks of the film, it is because you were busy watching what unfolds on the screen instead of listening to the music.
PadMan may have achieved a lot cinematically but its true triumph as a film is that it has aimed to disassociate shame and menstruation in India through the entertaining mainstream medium of cinema. Needless to say, it's a good watch.