‘PADMAN’ RAISES AWARENESS
Directors and producers want the Indian government to end the 18 per cent tax on sanitary pads, and distribute free pads to poor village women
MENSTRUATION is one thing a woman anywhere has to deal with every month. But, it is an age-old taboo subject in India. Men are ignorant and women hate to talk about it.
It is not mentioned in public. Even privately, it is a signal or a gesture. Many Indian languages do not have a proper word for it. The five-day ordeal is referred to in seriocomic fashion as “test match”, as in cricket. Considered “unclean”, a menstruating woman is isolated from rest of family. She is kept away from cooking, religious rituals and much else. A defiant woman risks a family’s wrath. If you are a man, you run the risk of not fully comprehending what women who go through it desire. You could be misunderstood by both women and men.
Education has helped, but slowly. People look away at its mention. A woman is under pressure to submit to deeply embedded ideas, causing clashes within the family, at times leading to separation. Of the many reasons, some are social, others economic. Women in urban India have, by and large, managed to shed the “shame” linked to periods, if for nothing else, to meet necessities of city life. But, it is vastly different in the vast countryside.
It is a subject crying for attention for long, considering that only 12 per cent of Indian women use sanitary pads and some 23 per cent of girls drop out of school when they reach puberty. Also consider how menstruating women risk reproductive and urinary tract infections due to unhygienic practices. The female mortality they cause goes largely unrecorded.
Film is the best medium in India to create mass awareness. But, to make it requires courage — plus, imagination, social awareness and commitment.
It has to be a feature film to reach the masses. A documentary has limited visibility in India. Few would have seen Amit Virmani’s critically acclaimed documentary Menstrual Man.
The taboo topic is finally unfolding. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) began reporting in 2014. In the last one year, a Tamil language film and two from Bollywood have taken inspiration from Arunachalam Muruganantham of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, who has pioneered sanitary padmaking machines.
Responses to the modestlybudgeted “Phullu” and the big budget “PadMan” have been interesting. The former received “Adults” certificate from overly cautious censors, while the latter received lukewarm reviews from niggardly film critics.
Condemned as “boring”, Phullu sank without much of a trace at the box office. As for PadMan, most critics have rated it 3.5 out of five, when a glossy, escapist fare generally gets four-plus.
Viewing, perhaps, through only the entertainment prism, the critics have lauded the message in PadMan, but hastened to call it preachy and even a public relations exercise for the government. Prejudices show, in one way or the other, when taboos and traditions are challenged.
Across India’s border, in Pakistan, the film is rejected for not being suitable to “our culture”. There are small mercies. PadMan, directed by R. Balki (Balakrishnan), was released without any protests and controversies that delayed director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Padmaavat”. And, it is making money.
PadMan is helmed by two couples — Balki, the director and Akshay Kumar who plays Muruganantham, while their respective wives, Gauri Shinde and Twinkle Khanna are producers.
Kumar, having earned huge money and fame with a hundredplus films, is now turning to social issues. His last year’s big hit was “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha”, about a man’s fight to get toilets in his town and to end open defecation.
This is another private issue of public shame in India. Indeed, the two themes have much in common and go well with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “clean India” campaign.
But, Modi must intervene to end 18 per cent tax on sanitary pads. Balki and Kumar want the tax to go and want free distribution of pads among the poor village women.
Muruganantham’s message is moving and relevant. He told BBC of how in 1998, he was shocked to discover that his wife Shanthi was using rags (nasty cloths, he called them). She pleaded that if she were to purchase sanitary pads, there wouldn’t be enough money to feed the family.
A school and job drop-out, he wondered why a pad made of 10g of cotton, which at the time cost 10 paise , a hundredth of an Indian rupee, should sell for four rupees — 40 times the price.
For researching, even experimenting on himself by donning a pad using animal blood and publicly advocating its use, Muruganantham became a social outcast. His mother and wife left him. With some institutional help, his doggedness has paid. His minimachines that can make sanitary pads for less than a third of the cost of commercial pads have been installed in 23 of the 29 states of India. He is currently planning to hike production and export these machines to 106 nations.
More entrepreneurs have entered this area and some propose to use waste banana fibre or bamboo to make pads.
These machines have had a cascading effect on society. They create jobs and income for many women. Affordable pads enable many more women to keep working during menstruation.
A cursory look at the market for sanitary pads shows that foreign brands, including Chinese, dominate. Locally made products, mainly in southern India, are relatively cheaper, catering to the poor.
Use of a pad seems dictated by economic, social and familial norms. The cheapest branded pad costs Rs 12 and needs to be changed thrice a day. Traditionally, given to making sacrifice for the family, even a middle-class woman may prefer use of cloth — an old saree, may be — and spend the money to buy vegetables. Health issues, then, remain unresolved.
Muruganantham’s revolution has yet to gain universal acceptance. He is undaunted. “My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women — but, why not 10 million jobs worldwide?”
A cursory look at the market for sanitary pads shows that foreign brands, including Chinese, dominate. Locally-made products, mainly in southern India, are relatively cheaper, catering to the poor.
The writer is president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (2016-2018) and a consultant with the ‘Power Politics’ monthly magazine
Indian devotees offering prayers during a festival. Women who are menstruating are not allowed to perform such prayers and are isolated from the rest of the family.