"AS FILMAKERS, WE ARE ALWAYS SCARED OF WHAT PEOPLE WILL SAY!"
Known for his unconventional storytelling from the likes of CheeniKum to Paa to Shamitabh to KiandKa, filmmaker R. BALKI is back with a tale of an underdog who dared to bring about change. R. Balki tells Divya Ramnani about the challenges faced while making his latest film PadMan, working with Akshay Kumar and more… It requires a lot of guts to make a film like PadMan. Along with spreading awareness, there is an entertainment factor in it too. As a director, what were the challenges in front of you?
Along with entertainment, spreading a message is equally important and I think nobody receives the message unless it’s entertaining. So if you don’t entertain people, whatever noble things you have to say in a film is a waste of time. My job is to make a movie that is entertaining, emotional, engaging and funny, so it should be in that zone rather than being a preachy one.
Was there any hesitation in making a film on menstrual hygiene? What kind of changes do you think this movie will bring?
As filmmakers, we are always scared of what people will say if we make a film like this. But that shouldn’t stop us because we are talking of contemporary problems and people of today. We never ask people what they want to see. For instance, if you ask someone whether they want to see an advertisement of a sanitary napkin, they will hesitate. But once you show it to them, they will start talking about it. For every change to happen, someone should do it first and once it happens, people become comfortable talking about it. And there’s no point in making something easy. For example, I don’t think anyone has said the word ‘pad’ as many times as they did in the last four-five months. People have been talking about PadMan where they use the word pad openly. And once you come out of the theatre after watching the film with your family, you will see a father, mother and daughter talking about it. Chances are that the next time the father learns of the girl going through her menstrual days, he will openly ask her if she needs a pad or he might even buy her one. So far we think that there are only certain things that daughters talk to their fathers about and most of the times it is with their mothers, but now fathers too can get involved. And never say that people are scared, they aren’t! They just want somebody to initiate the talks.
The topic itself is a social taboo, we don’t talk about it openly so it’s anyway a big challenge to
see a family watching a movie with an uneasy subject like this together. Do you think it will happen the other way round for PadMan? Undoubtedly, this is a family film and for girls to be specific. Somewhere, I feel that there are a lot of men who are trying to be a little better and have started thinking about things that they never really thought about before. A lot of them are going to be affected more by this film than women, because the women while watching PadMan will say, ‘See, this is what we go through’. And for that a man has to come along with her and only after watching the film, he will realise that she is special.
Any reason behind casting Akshay Kumar? I didn’t think of Akshay but since he asked me whether we could do a film on this, I thought about it and said, ‘yes’. My problem was not casting but I was uncertain about doing a biopic then. I realised that there won’t be many such opportunities of doing a film on this topic, that is, menstrual hygiene and PadMan is the first film in the world that is going to do something like this on a commercial level. Akshay Kumar solves all the problems when it comes to a character. First of all he is a bang on actor and very simplistic in his thinking. He is not someone who will ponder or strategize much. He prefers to come to the point. He has a pure heart. If you see the film, you will realize that nobody could play this character except Akshay Kumar.
Do you think without Akshay, the reach would have been slightly less? Slightly? Undoubtedly, without Akshay, the reach would be limited. Because I feel when you have a great star, people will automatically watch the film. I feel it is important for big stars to do films which are entertaining as well as deliver a messages, and so brings about a change. I am not saying make a boring preachy film which is an art film, No! That is a waste of time, Akshay is doing a terrific job by doing these kind of films.
Any thoughts behind casting Radhika Apte and Sonam Kapoor?
There’s no thought! Both of them are stupendous actors. If I could get a role for them, I would cast them any day. Sonam is a damn cool chick, who is doing some of the noblest things without showing off about it.
Is that the reasons you are inclined towards casting big stars be it Amitabh Bachchan, Dhanush or Akshay Kumar? Is it because you have a story to tell with a social message? I didn’t think like that, PadMan happened because Akshay called me. And he was sitting right in front of me, and tell me, why shouldn’t I think of him? He was just there right in front
Akshay Kumar solves all the problems when it comes to a character, First of all he is a bang on actor and very simplistic in his thinking.” ...with Akshay Kumar and Sonam Kapoor
of me and I like Akshay, the way he is and on top of that, I was zapped by the fact that he’s an incredible actor. Also, he never talks about acting like other people do apart from that he is very spontaneous more than most people. As for big stars, Amitabh Bachchan, when I had chance of casting him in Cheeni Kum. ( I can’t call him a big star, superstar, millennium star or something like that) He is Bachchan, he comes in a separate category. I wrote both Paa and Shamitabh keeping Bachchan in mind. Tabu may not be a star as big as Deepika, but she is an incredible actor and Vidya at that point of time when Paa came, wasn’t as big as Deepika or Priyanka but now she’s a big name. So, I don’t think I have ever needed a star as a heroine or a hero, I like working with people who I am a fan of.
You have always made films that highlight burning issues faced by the people of our country, any particular reason? My purpose was never to do that. Paa was not an issue faced by the people of our country. In fact, Paa was about human issues. All human beings have emotions and if you do a film on human beings, it will be about some or the other problems that they might have faced. Cheeni Kum was not about any issue, I find love is ageless and that happened to me, but we cannot call it a social issue. Talking about Ki and Ka, I never thought of it as a social issue, it just said
If you don’t entertain people, whatever noble things you have to say in a film is a waste of time.”
Tabu may not be a star as big as Deepika, but she is an incredible actor.”
“I don’t want to work as a man, I want to earn as a woman what is anybody’s problem?”… PadMan is a real social issue, because Arunanchalam’s life is a social issue.
After the trailer and songs were out, what was the reaction of people?
Since nobody has really cursed me, I am supposing everyone has liked it and the music is good too. I recently saw a bunch of security guys watching the trailer on their phones and they were actually discussing about the fact that they saw a packet of pads in their wife’s closet, par woh green tha yaar yeh toh grey hai and other guys explained him that hota hai yaar…meri beti ko bhi hua hai abhi, it’s a fantastic sight to watch people discussing about something they would never discuss in their life. Imagine the kind of joy you get, forget what the film is.
When was the first time you got rid of the taboos revolving menstrual hygiene?
I never had any taboos regarding menstruation. My mother used to sit outside before and I didn’t really ask, why. I learnt about the whole thing during my school days, and when I started my advertising career doing campaigns on pads. The kind of things what I heard about the taboos were so revolting that I was shaken. Yes, I have bought a lot of pads for Gauri and when I go to shops to buy pads, people look strangely at me. That’s when we realised
the depth of this problem and why people don’t talk about it openly. After we had a meeting with Arunachalam, we realized that the only way to bring about change is by making people talk about it freely. But yes, all these superstitions and religious acts were a huge obstacle.
Apart from India, there are many other countries that face similar issues, will this movie reach out to the people there?
I’m so happy to share that PadMan is the first Hindi film that’s released in Iraq after so many years and also in the Middle-East. Every country is welcoming this film as they want to show it to every woman in their country. It’s a positive sign by the governments. Governments don’t change unless they see that people are ready for these kind of social things and I see that change happening in society. This issue is relevant and existing in so many countries. Surprisingly, in countries like United Kingdom, Africa, Middle-East, Russia, menstrual hygiene is also a big issue and we are living in a world where people casually ignore this problem. It is globally a huge concern, be it a third world country or a developed one.
What are your thoughts on Arunachalam Muruganantham?
Arunachalam is a real trooper. He is a very creative guy and has got a lateral take on everything under the sun. Making a film like this is not as risky as compared to the life Arunachalam Murugunantham has led. If a person can live a life like his, it’s not a big deal making a film on it. His life is extremely entertaining. It’s not preachy or has any message, he is a thriller by himself.
What was the involvement of Twinkle Khanna in the process?
Twinkle was involved in getting Muruganantham to agree to give the official rights for the film, and he has not given it to anybody else till now. Twinkle went on to writing a book and we were writing the script. Both of us finished at the same time and we found that there were two different versions of the same man’s story. And both the book and the film have got nothing to do with each other. Twinkle studied the whole background and presented the film while the hardcore production was done by Akshay and me.
I am not saying to make a boring preachy film which is an art film, No! That is a waste of time.”
A still from Cheeni Kum
A still from Shamitabh
A still from PadMan
A still from Paa
A still from Ki & Ka