One man’s small idea has meant a big leap for women’s hy­giene, in­spir­ing Bol­ly­wood to make a biopic star­ring Ak­shay Ku­mar

India Today - - FILM - By Suhani Singh

AARUNACHALAM MU­RU­GANAN­THAM’S CU­RIOS­ITY and de­fi­ance have brought him both in­famy and fame. “In the early mar­riage days, you try to im­press your wife. I did the same,” says Mu­ru­ganan­tham in the pop­u­lar TED Talks video up­loaded on YouTube. So he brought Shan­thi a packet of san­i­tary nap­kins, af­ter he saw her us­ing a rag cloth which was so dirty he wouldn’t use it to clean his two-wheeler. Only Shan­thi wasn’t thrilled that he’d cut into their monthly house­hold bud­get. The Coim­bat­ore-based school dropout and welder then de­cided to make a pad on his own. Un­able to find vol­un­teers in his fam­ily or in the lo­cal med­i­cal col­lege to test his prod­uct, he be­came a guinea pig him­self. This, Mu­ru­ganan­tham claims, makes him the first man any­where to wear a san­i­tary nap­kin. For five days, he fixed a rub­ber bot­tle filled with goat’s blood to his hip and con­nected it to a tube which led di­rectly to the pad. “The messy days, the lousy days, that wet­ness. My God, it’s un­be­liev­able. I bow down in front of any woman who goes through that,” said Mu­ru­ganan­tham to ap­plause from the TED Talks au­di­ence in Ben­galuru.


It’s this can­dour mixed with a healthy dose of cheek­i­ness that makes the in­ven­tor of the low-cost san­i­tary nap­kin ma­chine an apt hero for a film. It’s also why he is the first per­son that ac­tress-turned-au­thor Twin­kle Khanna thanked in her best­selling book of short sto­ries, The Leg­end of Lak­shmi Prasad. A fic­tion­alised take on Mu­ru­ganan­tham’s in­cred­i­ble jour­ney is doc­u­mented in Twin­kle’s short The San­i­tary Man from a Sa­cred Land. Fe­bru­ary 9 marks the re­lease of Twin­kle’s pro­duc­tion, Pad Man, in which her hus­band, Ak­shay Ku­mar, plays Lak­sh­mikant Chauhan, a char­ac­ter in­spired by Mu­ru­ganan­tham who makes pads and be­gins a move­ment to in­crease aware­ness about men­strual hy­giene. Writ­ten and di­rected by R. Balki, the film also stars Rad­hika Apte as Chauhan’s es­tranged but lov­ing wife and Sonam Kapoor as a young woman who helps the real su­per­hero in his en­deav­our.

While Mu­ruga, the moniker Twin­kle uses for her friend, agreed to share his tale for the book, con­vinc­ing him to adapt his story for the big screen was an­other ball­game. Seated at her of­fice in Juhu, Mum­bai, Twin­kle re­counts how it took her eight months to earn his trust. “Half­way through the con­ver­sa­tion, I re­alised that the most in­ter­est­ing thing about him is that here’s a man who is do­ing some­thing se­ri­ous but he doesn’t take him­self se­ri­ously,” says Twin­kle about the real-life hero. “He had a cer­tain whimsy about him. I felt he sim­pli­fied ev­ery­thing in a hu­mor­ous way. I re­mem­ber him ask­ing, ‘So do peo­ple think more in a glass build­ing which is slanted at 45 de­grees or un­der a tree? How does it mat­ter where your of­fice is?’ That struck a chord with me.”

It ex­plains why the tagline for

Pad Man reads, “Su­per­hero hai yeh pagla”.

This isn’t the first time Mu­ru­ganan­tham’s story has been cap­tured for video. Amit Vir­mani’s doc­u­men­tary Men­strual Man (2013) was an en­gag­ing ac­count of his re­silience in the face of ad­ver­sity and his com­mit­ment to find­ing a low-cost al­ter­na­tive. In the film, Mu­ru­ganan­tham him­self de­tails how the vil­lagers ini­tially thought he had a sex­ual dis­ease and shunned him; how he was misun­der­stood for a pervert and ul­ti­mately aban­doned even by his wife who, un­able to cope with the crit­i­cism, served him a di­vorce no­tice. But as the tit­u­lar hero says, “If you are ed­u­cated, what would hap­pen? You’d stop.” For four years, Mu­ru­ganan­tham worked with three As in his mind—af­ford­abil­ity, avail­abil­ity and aware­ness—and de­vel­oped a set of four portable ma­chines which per­formed tasks such as process the raw ma­te­rial, com­press it into shape, seal and then ster­ilise it. In 2008, he made a vend­ing ma­chine to dis­pense the pads. A year later, he won the Na­tional In­no­va­tion Foun­da­tion’s Grass­roots Tech­no­log­i­cal In­no­va­tions Award.

Shan­thi came back af­ter a five-year sep­a­ra­tion pe­riod.

To­day, his firm, Jayashree In­dus­tries, has sold the equip­ment to over 4,000 small fac­to­ries across In­dia, and the tech­nol­ogy has cre­ated over 1,100 san­i­tary brands like Bliss, Nari Su­rak­sha, Sukhchain, Nice, Be Cool, Sakhee and Re­lax. Mu­ru­ganan­tham sells the equip­ment only to women self-help groups and thereby gen­er­ates em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties in ru­ral ar­eas. The so­cial en­tre­pre­neur has shared stage with Bill Gates and been be­stowed with the Padma Shri, but money is not on his mind. “If any­one runs af­ter money, their life will not have any beauty. It is full of bore­dom,” says Mu­ru­ganan­tham in the TED Talks. “Why the need of ac­cu­mu­late money and then do phi­lan­thropy? Mu­ru­ganan­tham de­cided to start with phi­lan­thropy from day one.”

It’s this self­less ap­proach that in­spired Balki to make his first biopic. Both he and writer Swanand Kirkire didn’t want to fo­cus just on the man in Pad Man but also wanted to see him through his wife’s eyes. “Yes, it is an in­no­va­tion- and cause-driven story, but it’s also a love story about what lengths a man can go to for his wife,” says Balki. “It be­comes in­ter­est­ing when the au­di­ence can em­pathise with the wife too. In that en­vi­ron­ment, he is go­ing to be seen as a mad­man. She could not have done any­thing else but leave him, for she had been raised in an en­vi­ron­ment that makes her think in a cer­tain way.”

In their mul­ti­ple meet­ings, Mu­ru­ganan­tham also re­layed to Balki his prob­lems with the san­i­tary nap­kin com­mer­cials and opened up the film­maker’s mind. Balki was the erst­while Group Chair­man of the ad­ver­tis­ing agency Lowe Lin­tas in In­dia. “He told me that women are shown jump­ing over fences, smil­ing in the of­fice dur­ing pe­ri­ods,” says Balki. “But the fact is that women are in pain and un­com­fort­able. Pads can only pro­vide hy­giene.”

Pad Man’s hero may not be from Coim­bat­ore (the film is set in Maheshwar in Mad­hya Pradesh) or called Arunacha­lam Mu­ru­ganan­tham, but the film re­tains all of Mu­ruga’s qual­i­ties such as his “earnest­ness and light-hearted man­ner”, says Twin­kle. Cast­ing Ak­shay, she adds, en­abled her to go be­yond a “smaller bud­get, art­house movie” and make “a fam­ily en­ter­tainer that’d reach the largest num­ber of peo­ple”. “If you have a man who is idolised by so many hold­ing a san­i­tary nap­kin, you have dis­pelled half the taboos right there,” she says.

With the Bol­ly­wood biopic land­scape largely dom­i­nated with films on prom­i­nent per­son­al­i­ties in the field of sports, pol­i­tics and cin­ema, Pad Man would be a re­fresh­ing ad­di­tion as it is the story of an un­der­dog, one who dared to tread a path that was off lim­its for men. It’s an in­spir­ing jour­ney of love, sweat and blood, lit­er­ally. “I felt there had never been a char­ac­ter who doesn’t seek re­venge or money or doesn’t want to prove a point to so­ci­ety or some­body,” says Balki. “He just wants to prove to him­self that he can make it.”


JOINT MIS­SION Ak­shay Ku­mar and Sonam Kapoor in a still from Pad Man

WE ARE FAM­ILY Mu­ru­ganan­tham, Shan­thi and their daugh­ter with Ak­shay, Twin­kle and Balki on the sets of the film

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