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The Ad Man on 'Pad Man': R. Balki Explains Why Akshay Kumar Is Perfect As Arunachalam Muruganantham

The Ad Man on 'Pad Man': R. Balki Explains Why Akshay Kumar Is Perfect As Arunachalam Muruganantham

Pad Man is an ode to the journey of Muruganantham, an inventor-cum-social entrepreneur who addressed the issue of menstrual hygiene and revolutionized the lives of rural women in developing countries by inventing machines that aid women to make sanitary pads at low costs.

Simantini Dey

Think of a sanitary pad advertisement. Any of them. Do images of pads blotting blue ink pop up in your head? Do you visualize women prancing around happily (mostly in spotless white outfits) during 'those difficult days'? Well, that’s what it has been. For decades, ad film makers and marketing men have been positioning sanitary pads as a product that liberates women during their periods. Each product claims to have better absorbing capacity than the other.

However, the original Pad Man, Arunachalam Muruganantham, who first invented a low-cost sanitary pad-making machine, refuses to subscribe to this notion. When R Balki was shooting the Akshay Kumar-starrer, he had a conversation with Muruganantham. The social entrepreneur from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu had a fundamental question for the director.

Recounting the conversation, Balki told News18 how Muruganantham was disappointed with the way sanitary napkins are advertised. "All these people are showing advertisements where women are jumping very happily in the offices during their periods. How can that be? Women are in pain (during periods), there is going to be discomfort. When will these people ever realize that pad is not lifestyle, pad is hygiene?" Muruganantham had asked the director.

The filmmaker says Muruganantham questioned him on why no ad-makers had spoken about hygiene while advertising for sanitary napkins. “When you use dirty clothes and don't wash and dry them properly, germs will infect you. So why has this country and all the marketing men never thought of positioning it (pads) as hygiene?" he had asked.

Needless to say, R Balki, who has been an ad man for almost thirty years, was stumped. "I said, wah! That is superb. Everyone is saying this (pad) absorbs more, that (pad) absorbs more, but no one is saying, my cloth already absorbs a hell of a lot, so what is the problem (with using cloth)?!" says the filmmaker. Balki, whose latest directorial venture, Pad Man, is based on Muruganantham's life says, “What this guy has done is incredible!"

"Here's a man who has gone and done a revolution in an area that nobody even wants to talk about. Everybody is kind of whispering, hush-hush (about menstruation). Most men don't even know that such a thing exists, that women have periods...” he says. Balki says the fact that he has dared to address the issue of menstrual hygiene is reason enough for Muruganantham to deserve a superhero status. "For me, he is a superhero, not because he manufactured all the machines and he designed everything himself, but because he kind of dared to address an issue that nobody was even willing to talk about, at that point of time," says the filmmaker.

If Muruganantham has been brave enough to address an issue that is considered to be a taboo, Balki is trying no mean feat by attempting to make a Bollywood entertainer out of it. "This film is about tackling an important issue and it is supposed to start a conversation," Balki said.

So, what does Balki what to achieve through the movie? To start with, he doesn’t intend to make the film which is only about being a ‘box-office hit’. “Of course all that is important... but this film would fail if it did not create a conversation, if it just made money and nobody talked about it...like a father didn't buy pad for his daughter, a brother didn't buy a pad for his sister.... then the film has not been successful according to me," he adds.

A week before its release, Pad Man has already stirred many conversations. The social media is abuzz with the #PadManChallenge where celebrities are posting a picture of themselves holding a sanitary napkin.

Balki, too, from the very beginning, has addressed the issue of menstrual health and hygiene during the film's promotions. "It is very important to us. Even in promotional terms, our focus has been completely on discussing menstrual health," says Balki. The director says that menstrual hygiene is a global issue. “In London or in Oxford, where Twinkle was promoting or in the US when we were promoting, it was all about menstrual hygiene because it is a global issue, and not one of the few things that are limited to India," he adds.

Pad Man is an ode to the journey of Muruganantham, an inventor-cum-social entrepreneur who addressed the issue of menstrual hygiene and revolutionized the lives of rural women in developing countries by inventing machines that aid women to make sanitary pads at low costs. However, Balki explains, Pad Man is not Muruganantham's biopic.

"I'm not doing a biopic, I'm doing an adaptation of the story of a great man," says the filmmaker. "The fortunate part of this (Murugananthan's) story, unlike most other stories, is that his life itself is like a thriller. His life itself is a screenplay. All I had to do was to make sure I didn't lose the thrill and I didn't lose a situation. Of course, cinematically you need to (kind of) add characters, enhance the romance... those kinds of things, of course, we will do for cinema to (kind of) engage." he adds.

The indications are clear in the trailer itself-- Balki has adapted Muruganantham's life in his own way for the silver screen. Pad Man isn't set in Coimbatore or anywhere in Southern India. The dialogue promos and the montage of scenes in the trailer further suggest that the movie, probably is based in Northern India. Akshay Kumar too hasn't tried to look like Muruganantham, there is no sign of a clipped moustache nor does he speak English as Muruganantham does. However, Balki reveals that Kumar and Muruganantham are way more similar as individuals than they appear to be.

Talking about Kumar, the filmmaker says, "..he (Kumar) is a great actor and he is a great star and this kind of subject needs star value... he was, in my head, a lot like Muruga in the way he behaves, in the way he is. As a person, he is very simple, pure. So I thought it was perfect casting. Once I finished the film, I couldn't think of anybody besides him (for the part), I didn't even think of another soul except Akshay."

While Pad Man packs a powerful social message, Balki says, that at its core the film is 'a classic love story'. Pad Man chronicles Muruganantham's love for his wife Shanti, because of whom, he thought of making sanitary pads in the first place. In real life, as in the film, Muruganantham and Shanti's marriage goes through a rough patch because of his obsession to manufacture cost effective sanitary pads. Muruganantham was not only called a pervert and socially disgraced, but also deserted by his wife and his mother during the early stages of his struggle. Radhika Apte plays Shanti's role onscreen.

The other female lead of Pad Man is Sonam Kapoor. According to the filmmaker, Kapoor has the most difficult role in the film. Talking about Kapoor's character Balki said, "I just feel Sonam's character is so important because to be in love not with a man, but with a cause that is not even yours is very hard. It is not her revolution. It is not her creation, but to just support and almost lead a revolution not created by you is a tough part to play."

Balki is hopeful that the subject of his film will resonate with a large section of India. "There are some subjects that no one wants to listen to or talk about and there are some subjects that people want to listen to and are shy about talking first. So a film about that subject gives them the license to start talking about it," he says.

The director feels that the country is in a stage where people are listening about the issues of menstrual health, but only needs someone to take the lead. And he feels, Akshay Kumar, with his strong character may be able to give people a lot of confidence to continue the conversation.
first published:February 05, 2018, 17:03 IST