If Bollywood films stand for escapist, glossy cinema, then it’s time to regroup and take a look at Akshay Kumar’s career choices. Here’s an actor who embraced an unsavory issue such as open defecation and spun a romantic tale around it.
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, an ordinary villager’s quest to build a bathroom for his wife at home instead of her doing her business in the open fields, was his 2017 crusader film. The 50-year-old isn’t done being a champion activist on the big screen. This week, the star who began his career with a slew of action and comic roles, wants to fire up the taboo topic around women’s menstruation and easy access to sanitary pads.
“We need to start the conversation on periods to break the taboo. I think we especially need to connect with men, as they are instrumental to achieving the change we need,” said Kumar in an interview over email. In certain rural areas in India, women are considered unholy during their monthly cycle and use dirty rags or saw dust instead of sanitary pads making them vulnerable to cervical cancer and infections.
Directed by R Balki, Pad Man is produced by Kumar’s wife, author Twinkle Khanna, and is based on the life of South Indian activist Arunachalam Muruganantham who revolutionised the concept of menstrual hygiene by creating his own low-cost sanitary pad machine model.
Khanna, who dubs the real pad man as an extraordinary human being, hopes that her pet project will nudge women to adopt hygienic practices such as drying their menstrual cloth in the sunshine instead of surreptitiously drying it in dark places.
“I am hoping that the shame and embarrassment around menstruation is reduced so that women can turn around and allot a certain budget to sanitary pads in their monthly budgets or that the girls can go up to their dads and say that they don’t need fairness creams but need sanitary pads instead. That would be a dramatic shift,” said Khanna in a separate interview with Gulf News tabloid!.
As Pad Man gears up for release this Thursday in the UAE, here’s Kumar’s thoughts on his role, the power of cinema and whether he intends to join politics…
What went through your mind when you first learnt that you will play an activist bolstering the cause of menstrual hygiene among women?
I was intrigued by the incredible story of the real Pad Man which is why I signed the film. Pad Man is based on true events from the life of a South Indian native Arunachalam Muruganantham, a husband who did everything in his power and beyond to provide his wife with a low-cost sanitary pad to improve her quality of life.
Even though his quest nearly cost him his marriage, he wanted to make her more comfortable and lower the risk of diseases due to unclean menstruation practices. I was drawn to the powerful topic because there were also issues and taboos relating to menstrual hygiene.
To discover that 1 in 10 girls in the UK are living in period poverty, only 12 per cent of women in India have access to sanitary pads and that over 20 per cent of girls are dropping out of education because of their periods was truly shocking. To think that the women in our lives have all lived in shame for centuries because of a natural part of the biological process is saddening. They have been made to feel like second-class citizens and in some cases it’s even cost them their livelihood or worse.
What were the challenges to your role?
I don’t think there were the traditional challenges in this role. Arunachalam is a brilliant person and meeting him was a memorable experience. He took on the responsibility to find a solution to the issues of menstrual hygiene that women across India face and this man is a mark of a true patriot. The challenge was to do justice to Arunachalam’s role, but the bigger challenge was to convince the audience, particularly the male viewers, that this topic is not a taboo. Menstruation and improving the lives of women through access to sanitary pads is something we must all address.
Were you uncomfortable during any of your scenes?
Not at all and why should I be? I’m certain that there will be men and women who watch Pad Man and will feel uncomfortable in certain scenes. But we must move past the fear of discussing the issues that have affected the quality of life for women and girls worldwide. This can only be done if we all step up and begin a conversation so that women feel empowered and not inferior when on their periods.
How did you prepare for your character based on Muruganantham?
I met him a quite a few times. Muruganantham taught me a lot, but it wasn’t always so easy to get it out of him. In the early days, he was quite hesitant to talk freely with me. I later discovered that he prefers to speak with women over men because men aren’t usually the quickest to understand him. But his phrase ‘Woman strong will make country strong’ really stuck with me and I say it in the film too. Clearly, we men have to get our acts together. I have tried to portray a humble and ordinary man’s extraordinary efforts as accurately as possible. After all, I too had started out as a common man in the movies. In keeping with the story of the film, there was no real need to over-stylise the film and we wanted it to be an authentic experience for the viewers.
Were you worried that this film will be reduced into a propaganda movie?
Absolutely not. Pad Man has an authenticity and sincerity to it that a propaganda does not.
What’s your take on those wondering if your movie choices are directed at sculpting a political career?
As you move through life, substance begins to matter more than anything else. I am now an established enough actor who can afford to explore projects and roles that can help improve people’s lives as well as provide them with entertainment. This is one of my most exciting periods in my career.
When a public figure uses their voice to address a crisis, you can only hope that people embrace their message with enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter to me if I offend someone’s sensibilities. Menstruating is a natural part of the human body, so it’s time to get rid of the taboos and stigmas that surround it. Personally, I have enjoyed observing how my recent films have been received. It’s reassuring to know that people will support you. People are hungry for films that are meaningful.
In an interview you said that you did not know about menstruation until you turned 19 or older. Do you think men play an important role in mitigating the taboo attached to a bodily function among women?
Absolutely. Men can help to create the change we desperately need. The best part of working on this film was that I witnessed men talking about pads on social media. It’s why we made Pad Man into a drama because it makes much more of an impact on attitudes and cultural tendencies than a documentary ever can. That’s why we want everyone in the whole family to see it including your uncles, fathers, sons and partners.
How did this film alter your life and what was it like to have your wife as the producer of Pad Man?
Working on this film has made me realise that I wish I had known about this since childhood. Our society believes it should never be a topic of discussion, so I didn’t even know that my own sister could be going through this even though I shared the same room with her. It’s an upsetting thought because being educated about menstruation could have made me a better brother, son and husband and allowed me to support the women in my life with the difficulties they must face while on their period. Having Twinkle as a producer encouraged me to do my best because it has been her passion-project.
What would you like to tell all the men and women in India about menstruation? And do you support a day being given off by certain companies to working women attributed to discomfort or pain attached to monthly menstruation?
I would tell them to start talking about menstruation and not to be afraid of discussing it. A lot of change needs to come from men and they need to address and respect the struggles that women and girls have endured for centuries. Regarding a day off, every company has its own system but if an employee — man or woman — faces discomfort or pain, this should be addressed.
What was the most memorable part of filming for Pad Man?
The climactic monologue in the film’s final act. He is speaking from a land far from India and it is the culmination of everything that the movie is about and the message it is trying to send to the world. I can only hope that the world receives the message.