Watching Padman’s trailer felt like a confirmation of what I had been expecting from this movie ever since I heard about it early last year. It begins with Amitabh Bachchan’s voice announcing that the USA has Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, but India has its very own superhero, Padman (AKA the champion of all noble causes currently seeing their time in the sun, Akshay Kumar). The original Padman that this movie is based on is, of course, Tamil Nadu’s Arunachalam Muruganantham. He becomes Laxmikant Chauhan from Madhya Pradesh in this movie because, well, because.
In the trailer, the background track eerily chants “super-hero super-hero” as we see Kumar trying on a pad of his own design, and later, lambasting his wife Gayatri (Radhika Apte) and other female relatives for holding on to ideas of shame instead of trying to help him make functional pads (“sharam ko pakadke bimaari ke naale mein gir jao sab!”). We see Sonam Kapoor asking a dejected Kumar what he’s doing on the ground instead of flying in the sky as Padman should, and Kumar himself declaring at the United Nations that a country is strong only if its sisters, mothers, wives and daughters are strong.
Given that trailer, Akshay Kumar’s general love for macho superhero status, and the moralistic advertisement for a government project that was his last movie, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, I was pretty sure Padman was going to be another exercise in celebrating Akshay Kumar’s virtuous masculinity and respect for women.
The takeaway would be that any man who helps women, especially with dirty, dirty, women’s hygiene is a super-hero. It is, after all, one of the few “issues” women face that have nothing to do with men being violent, and about which all-knowing men are always on hand to help and teach women about. From the men who rudely burst into your homes and toilets in Domex ads to the Swachh Bharat government officials who take photos of women defecating in public, Akshay Kumar is the leader of all these helpful men.
But, what a shocker! While the trailer promises a male saviour superhero in the shape of Padman, it was all just a clever ruse to presumably get the public to watch a factual movie about pads.
I mean, sure, the movie does focus excessively on Kumar and the various troubles, pains, humiliations and hurdles he encounters in his quest to invent a low-cost pad machine. But once you’ve accepted that the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham was captivating and inspiring enough to base a movie on, it feels hollow to say that the movie focuses on the central character too much.
We follow Chauhan’s horror at seeing the dirty cloth his wife Gayatri uses every month, his efforts to get her to test out his products (which end in depressing failures that force her to spend the night washing bloodstains out of her saree), his disastrous attempts at testing a pad himself with a bladder of animal blood, and the subsequent shame that drives him away from his village when the blood and bladder are discovered. When you see this much of Chauhan, it’s easy to ask why on earth a movie vaguely meant to be about the empowerment of women focuses on Akshay Kumar so much, but then again, all of this is based on a true story. All of these things really did happen to the original and quite remarkable Muruganantham, and he did persevere in the face of all kinds of opposition.
Director R Balki is clearly alive to the ironies of the story (which was adapted, by the way, from a short story that producer Twinkle Khanna wrote in The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad). When Chauhan first calls Gayatri after their humiliated separation, the first thing he tells her is that the pad machine he made (for her) is ready, you see Gayatri sort of speechlessly wonder when on earth she asked for a pad machine as she runs away crying. It immediately leaves you wondering about all the strange conversations the real life Muruganantham must have had with his wife Shanthi.
Padman also gives you the neat little bonus of balancing out Kumar with a surprise Sonam Kapoor. She sort of swoops into the movie and saves the day in a way that doesn’t feel entirely necessary to the plot (and isn’t faithful to fact and Muruganantham’s story either). I’m certainly not complaining, though, that a movie on menstruation added a nice female-saviour character to help save the day for the male protagonist. I think it did both Padman and Akshay Kumar good to take some liberties with the facts and have the main character’s life work be saved by a woman, even if she did randomly try to make out with him and get rejected in the end. *eyeroll*
The nice thing about Padman is that despite the weird trailer and the unnecessary addition of Kapoor’s romantic inclinations, it does little to glorify Kumar or the Padman himself. I think, once you get past the irritation of Akshay Kumar continuously taking on roles that posit him as the nation’s Good Boy (at least in years when Aamir Khan is laying low from his role as Good Boy), there’s not much you’ll find objectionable about Padman, because Muruganantham’s is a truly unique story.
Co-published with Firstpost