No jokes, period

Published: 29 October, 2013 06:48 IST | Vidya Heble |

It has lent itself to punny titles and witticisms, but for filmmaker Amit Virmani, his documentary Menstrual Man, which debuted in India last week, is serious stuff

There must be as many euphemisms for “that time of the month” as there are languages in India. But for Amit Virmani, menstruation is nothing to shy away from. In fact, he has made a film with the M-word in the title.

Menstrual Man is a 63-minute-long documentary on Arunachalam Muruganantham, who is by now virally famous for having devised a low-cost sanitary napkin alternative, after seeing his wife balancing the cost of napkins against the cost of the family’s meal budget.

Muruganantham’s story caught not just the attention but the creative fancy of the 39-year-old Singapore-based filmmaker, who proceeded to spend much of 2012 making the documentary. His earlier film was Cowboys In Paradise (2009), a documentary about the gigolo culture in Kuta, Bali.

Menstrual Man is a little different -- it tells the inspiring story of a man who rose from below the poverty line and became a passionate social entrepreneur, battling prejudice and myths. It underscores the importance of empowering women to combat poverty, and the power in every individual to make a difference. The film received applause when it was screened last week at the Dharamsala Film Festival, and is making its European premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam, in their Best of Fests section which presents documentaries that have made an impact on the past year’s international festival circuit. In an interview with MiD DAY, Virmani talks about his journey, and what inspired him.

EMPOWERING WOMEN: A still from the film

Tell us a little about you - what’s your background? Were you always into films?
Yes, but aren’t all Indians? I don’t think there’s an Indian man in my generation who didn’t punch imaginary baddies while making dishum-dishum sounds. That’s how much we love our cinema, or how much it shapes us. But the idea that I could actually make films myself, that came much later when I was studying business (like a good Indian boy) at Southwestern University in Austin, Texas, which is a great town for indie filmmakers.

Why is that?
Austin... many reasons, really. SXSW (South by Southwest, a set of film, interactive, and music festivals and conferences held every spring in Austin), the fact that it’s a college town, University of Texas film school... And in the ’90s, everything sort of came together for the first time. Richard Linklater made Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Robert Rodriguez stunned everyone with El Mariachi. Suddenly Austin was an indie filmmaker’s paradise.

QUIET CRUSADER: Arunachalam Muruganantham 

Why Menstrual Man? What made you think, I can make a film about this guy — what grabbed you as a film possibility?
His story! Man comes from the wrong side of the tracks, decides to do something for his country, faces countless odds including ridicule from his community, but emerges victorious. I didn’t have to wonder if there was a film there. This is vintage Bollywood stuff. Manoj Kumar and Mithun made their careers out of the same narrative arc. You have a flair for making out-of-the-ordinary films. What led you to this way of thinking? Are documentaries your thing? I’m not sure how out-of-the-ordinary my films are. I just choose subjects that interest me, and hope for the best.
Are documentaries my thing? Haha. Not my only thing, I hope. I mean, I never thought I’d make a documentary — let alone two. It’s just that with both films, I felt truth was already stranger than fiction.

SOCIAL BATTLE: It was a struggle against prejudices as well as poverty

Menstrual Man is unusual, but not controversial in the same vein as Cowboys, is it? Why did you choose these subjects?
Well, I could argue that over 80 per cent of Indian women not having access to menstrual hygiene is controversial... But I know what you mean, and you’re right. It’s not in the same vein. That would be odd, if I went out of my way to pick controversial topics. I honestly don’t. I choose subjects that intrigue me.

Are you taking the wider issue of Menstrual Man any further? Campaigns, or tie-ups with NGOs?
No, campaigning or running NGOs is somebody else’s job, not mine as the filmmaker. Besides, I prefer to pick goals that are quantifiable and that I have an actual chance of accomplishing. For instance, we held a charity screening to buy a generator for one of the organizations featured in the film. Now 10 women in a rural village in Tamil Nadu are back at work making pads for their community. Next, we began raising money for a rural girls’ school. That’s another clear goal whose impact I can measure because I know that X dollars keeps these many girls in school for a month, and so on.

Where does such a documentary film-maker’s role end? Is there a point when you say, I’ve done enough, I need to move on?
I think a filmmaker’s primary responsibility is to tell an engaging story that helps raise awareness for the issue. That’s already a huge commitment because in the indie world, and certainly with Menstrual Man, you’re investing your own time and money. Beyond that it’s the filmmaker’s choice. My partner and I are still contributing what and however we can. But it’s not because we feel obligated to, after having made a film on the subject. It’s because like most people, we aim to be decent human beings.

What do you have in mind next?
I’m not sure what I’ll do next. It took me three years after Cowboys to find the next story I wanted to tell. Let’s see.

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