Paromita Vohra: There should be blood
There is a lot to be said for sweet, kind men. Even at its most tedious, I felt good-natured towards Pad Man because it features such men and suggested that love is a powerful catalyst for change when it comes to gender
There is a lot to be said for sweet, kind men. Even at its most tedious, I felt good-natured towards Pad Man because it features such men and suggested that love is a powerful catalyst for change when it comes to gender. Akshay Kumar's Lakshmiprasad Chauhan is a genial and loving man, inspired to invent a low-cost technology to produce cheap sanitary napkins because he does not want his wife to suffer the effects of menstrual taboos. Sonam Kapoor's father has brought his daughter up with a matter-of-fact tenderness - curled her hair, learned to cook, enjoyed her company. The film unambiguously shows that a loving father can raise an unlimited girl who embodies freedom and self-confidence. Communicating that egalitarianism - yaniki relating to others as people, not as identities - helps you see both, the problem and the solution, where others are blind, is a tonal achievement of the film.
And, only the churlish would deny the simple impact of an A-list star talking about chums and obsessing about sanitary napkins. Akshay Kumar does this with sincerity, doggedness, likeability. So, we must give Pad Man that due. Nevertheless, Pad Man, like the fictionalised account of Arunachal Muruganthanam's quest by Twinkle Khanna on which it is based, is a lugubrious film.
A campaign like Touch the Pickle did more to confront menstruation. It felt transgressive - women, go on, do what is forbidden - and suggestive - today the pickle, tomorrow the world. For R Balki, it is today Amitabh Bachchan, tomorrow Akshay Kumar. Chaliye.
In older, nation-building Hindi films, actors like Sunil Dutt and Dharmendra played what the sociologist Sanjay Srivastava has called The Five-Year-Plan man. They fulfilled the Nehruvian nationalist dream of building bridges and dams. Superstition was their enemy. They were duty-bound to marry traditional, simple women. "Modern", women were educated to be their helpmeets - spunky, sparky, but eventually supportive, sacrificing their love at the altar of the man's mission of nation building and duty to family.
Pad Man recasts this masculine figure as Make-In-India man - at a historical moment when the idea of India is also being recast. The people, the janta, are the problem - superstitious, backward. The solution is a homespun genius. Man is the benign uplifter. Woman (weeping Radhika Apte) the grateful, upliftee to whom he says "uth meri jaan". Or the one who claps proudly (sweet Sonam Kapoor) as he impresses (endearingly), the world, to whom he says, "aur bhi dukh hain zamane mein mohabbat ke siva". So, gotta go.
In unintended symmetry, the film itself is a big sanitary pad. It soaks up all the blood of menstrual life - we never see a dot of female blood in the film - and the activism of Menstrupaedia, Rupi Kaur's menstrual stain photo on Instagram, the fanastic #padsagainstsexism viral campaign started by students of Jamia Millia, the South Indianness of the original Menstrual Man to present a white backdrop, unstained by history or texture against which to present Padman as a North Indian upper caste male - in old Hindi film tradition.
Of course, narratives for mass audiences need some simplification. If only films like Pad Man could let some of the blood of understanding, activism, history, infuse their veins, that would enrich their imagination of the world, of filmmaking, of change - sparing us the pretend bloodless coup of fulfilling agendas.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com