A PERIOD PIECE
One man’s small idea has meant a big leap for women’s hygiene, inspiring Bollywood to make a biopic starring Akshay Kumar
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.
“HAVE A MAN IDOLISED BY MANY HOLD A NAPKIN, AND HALF THE TABOO IS DISPELLED,” SAYS TWINKLE ABOUT CASTING AKSHAY
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.”
“WE HAVE ENOUGH CHARACTERS SEEKING REVENGE OR MONEY,” SAYS BALKI. “HERE WAS A MAN WHO JUST WANTED TO PROVE TO HIMSELF HE COULD 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