By Poulomi Das
In Airlift, he facilitated the ghar-wapsi of stranded Indians from Kuwait. In Rustom, he engineered his own ghar-wapsi from jail. In Naam Shabana, he deftly arranged Tapsee Pannu’s ghar-wapsi from her own lead outing, and finally in last year’s government-approved Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, the man managed to successfully aid the ghar-wapsi of any kind of objectivity. It’s fitting then, that in the ambitiously thick-headed PadMan, Akshay Kumar has been tasked with the monumental duty of coaxing ghar-wapsi of every woman’s “five-day test match” problems.
In this new socially conscious outing, Khiladi 420 lends his support to women empowerment, and his wife, the self-proclaimed Mrs Funnybones is by his side. The film is inspired by the extraordinary story of social entrepreneur, Arunachalam Muruganantham who was awarded the Padma Shri for inventing low-cost sanitary pad machines that provided jobs to over a million rural women (and who gets a measly two-second end credit). But the film’s “concept” credit rests solely with Twinkle Khanna, clicker of men taking a dump by the sea and non-believer of women taking menstrual leaves. It indeed takes a lot of funnybones to sneak credit for someone’s whole life and turn it into a commercialisation vehicle that represents everything that Muruganantham is vehemently against.
Two years after Khanna wrote a fictionalised tale based on Muruganantham in Legends of Lakshmi Prasad, the film that we are left with has no resemblance to any part of his life. R Balki may be credited as the director of PadMan, but it is in fact Khanna’s very expensive Juhu lens that dominates much of the film, visible in the overreaching “woke” urban gaze in a film that is meant to be about a predominantly rural issue.
In PadMan, set in Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh, (Muruganantham is originally from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu) Kumar plays Lakshmikant Chauhan, (only so he can crack a “Lakshmi can” pun at the UN) a mechanic who sets out to invent a low-cost sanitary pad so that his wife Gayatri (a severely wasted Radhika Apte) isn’t forced to use a dirty cloth during her periods. So far, so good.
Except, the film has the emotional heft of sandpaper, since Lakshmi clearly shares more chemistry and familiarity with the pads than with his wife, Gayatri.
As it turns out, Gayatri, and his family are not as receptive to his entrepreneurial skills as he’d expect. So, Lakshmi does the unthinkable and tests his pads on himself, using a fake uterus and animal blood. The one scene in the film that could come close to being heralded as revolutionary – the sight of a mass-friendly A-lister wearing a pink panty with a sanitary pad inside it – is a disappointingly blink-and-miss moment, whose culmination gets undermined by the needless theatrics in the next scene. Upon realising that the pad he’s wearing has failed at absorbing the blood, Kumar dashes off and dives into the water with a demented Donald Duck-esque urgency, because that’s what women who are stained during their periods usually do. In a film about menstruation, this is also the only time when there’s actual blood on screen.
Even the disgust of the villagers when presented with a man who is obsessed with sanitary pads is presented with a heightened sense of one-note dramatics without an iota of realism, that could put saas-bahu serials to shame. After depicting the most extra AF panchayat meeting where copious tears are shed and the wife is separated, Lakshmi decides to lead a sacrifice and leave his village, which leads us to PadMan’s second half, or “What the hell is Twinkle Khanna smoking?”
Enter Pari (Sonam Kapoor). Because every socially conscious film needs a pretty tabla-playing MBA type girl who has not yet discovered the social worker inside of her. While Lakshmi ends up migrating to a small village where he builds his inexpensive sanitary pad machines, Pari learns of his wretched story and convinces him to come to IIT Delhi and participate in an Innovation Competition. He obliged, except, he ends up wanting to pee in the middle of demonstrating his machine to the judges. Worry not, there’s a reason the scene is in the film; so that a “no pad for susu” joke can be cracked. God bless the Juhu lens!
Anyway, Lakshmi obviously ends up winning that competition which then makes Pari realise that she always wanted to be a manic-pixie social worker. The duo then start the process of visiting numerous villages and convincing women to not just use pads for their periods but also buy their machines and start up their own factory to produce low-cost sanitary pads. All in the span of less than five seconds. Even brainwashing someone takes longer.
At this point, R Balki, is understandably upset at Khanna hogging the limelight with her Juhu-centric guidance. So, he nobly takes up the challenge of #MakingSanitaryPadAdsGreatAgain and shows a teenage girl jumping around in joy after wearing a sanitary pad. PadMan is now as rooted in reality, as Padmaavat was a celebration of women.
Suddenly, we find ourselves at the United Nations (nursing aHalf Girlfriend deja vu), where we also find out that Lakshmi can speak and understand English without ever learning it. Before he’s about to go on stage, he proposes that Pari accompany him. In her reply, Pari just straight out kisses him and later, attempts to explain it by delivering what can already be termed as this year’s cringiest line: “Human body hai, josh mein it happens.”
In case, you didn’t guess it yet, PadMan is now a love-triangle replete with the testosterone level of a 15-year-old boy. Apparently, the story of a man finding global acclaim for inventing low-cost sanitary pads needs a love triangle subplot only so he can be deemed more heroic for resisting the temptation of cheating and dutifully returning to his wife. To be fair, Sonam Kapoor’s insufferable acting skills do end up making the choice easier for Lakshmi.
This unnecessary detour is emblematic of the filmmakers’ lack of faith in the natural greatness of the story at hand, finding a need to instead pepper it with urban cliches and conflicts. In doing so, PadMan moves away from being a film which could start a conversation around menstruation that goes beyond men holding up some pads or bellowing lines like “Mard hone ka asli maaza andar ki auraat jagane se aata hai”.
But to be fair, some good did come out of PadMan: Thanks to the thoughtful #PadmanChallenge, Bollywood actors have finally realised what a pad looks like. Now only if they read up on the 12 per cent GST that the government is imposing on sanitary pads, Akshay Kumar and Twinkle Khanna’s peak performative feminism can finally reach its climax.
Featured Image Credits: Sushant Ahire/Arré
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