By Poulomi Das
As Bollywood’s glitterati proudly holds up sanitary pads to raise awareness for their Instagram followers, participating in Akshay Kumar’s #PadManChallenge, the man who inspired it all unknowingly wrote off their “socially conscious” marketing exercise in a few sharp lines. “Menstrual hygiene is a subject that can’t be tackled by an advertising or a marketing team,” said Arunachalam Muruganantham toward the end of Amit Virmani’s 2013 documentary Menstrual Man.
Amit Virmani’s documentary is a hard look at a world in which a man invades the privacy of women in a small town and the price he pays for it. However, if the movie PadMan’s pointless marketing exercise is anything to go by, R Balki will give us a hyped-up superhero film with Akshay Kumar in a cleaned-up (whitewashed) North Indian version of Muruganantham with a twinkle-eyed social worker (Sonam Kapoor) to make it more “people friendly”. The documentary, however, gives us a the real story with all its rough edges.
Menstrual Man opens with a telling scene that reveals the country’s attitude toward menstruation: A male teacher lectures girls about the benefits of using pads as opposed to cloth while they giggle, look down at the floor embarrassed, and avoid looking into the invasive camera. Moments after he holds up a sanitary pad and insists that a young student, moving her hand away from the pad in trepidation, touch it, the teacher introduces Muruganantham to his class.
All this while Muruganantham, the man who’d made the sanitary pads that were being shown around in class, chose to stand behind, letting the teacher have his moment with his students. It’s a trait that is inherent to Muruganantham, and one he consciously encourages, cultivates, and propagates in his decentralised, low-cost sanitary pad business. He trusts women enough to take forward the duty of spreading awareness and rake in profits for the business.
In a country, where 70 per cent reproductive diseases are due to poor menstrual hygiene, 88 per cent women are unable to afford sanitary napkins, and over 20 per cent girls drop out of schools on reaching puberty, Muruganantham’s decade-long perseverance on making low-cost pads was a blessing in disguise. Before this Menstrual Man came along, rural women had conditioned themselves to use rags, sand, and even ash during their periods, resulting in not just infections, but in severe cases, even death. In most cases, poverty, ignorance, and the unusually high cost of sanitary pads left them with little choice.
Shanthi, Muruganantham’s wife, was among those women who used cloth during menstruation. When prodded by her husband on her decision to not use hygienic sanitary napkins instead, she told him that they would have to cut the family’s milk budget if she was to use pads. It was this admission that piqued Muruganantham’s curiosity and set the ball in motion for his globally renowned entrepreneurial career and an extraordinary movement that has empowered rural women.
In the film, Muruganantham credits his razor-focused dedication toward building a low-cost sanitary-pad alternative despite insurmountable odds to his illiteracy. “Because I was uneducated, I kept going. If I was educated, I would stop,” the school dropout jokes while addressing a gathering. Muruganantham’s period revolution came at the cost of many personal losses: His wife left him after she mistrued his pad obsession as a trump card to speak to women, his mother followed, and he was ostracised by his village for having a dangerous sexual disease.
But, as the documentary reveals, Muruganantham soldiered on, undeterred. Left with no choice, he even tested the pads on himself – he made a fake uterus from a football bladder and filled it up with coagulated animal blood. He then, spent over four years making a machine that would bring down the price of sanitary pads, while providing employment to women. Muruganantham ended up not just doing away with the stigma associated with menstruation, but also reengineered a multi-million-dollar factory processing unit down to a four-step machinery that rural women learnt to operate in less than an hour.
Muruganantham then initiated the process of supplying these machines to NGOs and women self-help groups in underdeveloped towns across Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan. As Menstrual Man suggests, he has distributed over 600 machines to 23 states in the country. The price of sanitary pads sold in these villages is anywhere between ₹15 for six pads to ₹ 25 for 12 pads, making it duly accessible to women who are in dire need of it.
Muruganantham credits his razor-focused dedication toward building a low-cost sanitary-pad alternative despite insurmountable odds to his illiteracy.
In a poignant scene in the documentary, Guddiya, a young woman from Uttar Pradesh, recounts her life before Muruganantham. She was married off at 17, and endured daily beatings from her drunk husband. After running away from home, the young mother of three started working at a facility that hosted Muruganantham’s machines and actively spearheaded awareness campaigns about the benefits of sanitary pads.
Menstrual Man is populated by women like Guddiya, who’ve been able to reclaim their agency. Today, they are adamant to heed to higher standards of menstrual hygiene than what they’ve grown up with and can now sustain themselves. By relying on a women-to-women model and refusing to sell his machine to corporates, Muruganantham has managed to do what even seasoned politicians have gloriously failed at achieving: Give rural women a new lease of life.
Much as the film focuses on Muruganantham’s fight toward bettering menstrual hygiene, it’s also in equal parts a portrait of an uneducated man, taking it upon himself to find a solution to “a problem he never has to come across” and setting up not just a profitable, but a socially conscious enterprise. “The problem is that in India people use education to survive, not to achieve,” he offers. Much of Menstrual Man is underlined by Muruganantham’s humorous personality and never-say-die attitude that is replete with a candour that overpowers every conversation around menstruation. It’s this openness that should ideally accompany the topic of menstruation, in the first place.
Muruganantham’s self-motivated movement is a lesson in the fact that bringing about change is not just a day’s work, but that it takes years of toiling. It’s also a reminder that empowering a country necessitates empowering its women. The definition of success for him isn’t just calculated in money. It’s instead calculated in the number of livelihoods he’s managed to impact.
As the film draws to an end, Muruganantham, who at that time had created jobs for one million Indian women, speaks about his dream of taking his enterprise to other underdeveloped countries, and hopes to generate 10 million jobs the world over. If there’s any man who can make that happen, it’s none other than Menstrual Man. If there’s anyone whose life story makes perfect fodder for a film, it’s undoubtedly Arunachalam Muruganantham. The only question is: Will PadMan be able to do justice to the genius of India’s Menstrual Man?
Featured Image Credits: Sushant Ahire/Arré