Indian author and former actress Twinkle Khanna, who uses sardonic humour to great effect in her bestselling books, chose an unlikely subject as her first Bollywood film as a producer.
Pad Man, which is still playing in select cinemas in the UAE this week after its release last month, isn’t your conventional razzle-dazzle musical with loud humour. Perhaps, the only concession that Pad Man got was that it boasted Khanna’s A-list actor-husband and top box-office draw Akshay Kumar as its lead actor, but the rest of her production was strictly unconventional.
“But what I am really pleased is that there’s a conversation, an unheard one, going on about menstrual hygiene, access to affordable sanitary pads or cups and then there is the other thing — shame and embarrassment about the fact that you are menstruating… There’s now a dialogue or conversation about menstruation now,” said Khanna in an interview with Gulf News tabloid!.
At the time of our interview, the daughter of the late legendary actor Rajesh Khanna and actress Dimple Kapadia was gearing up for the release of her pet project in cinemas and wasn’t sure how her film would be received. She needn’t have worried.
Based on the real life of the welder-turned-activist Arunachalam Muruganantham from Tamil Nadu, Pad Man opened to good reviews and was hailed for the performances of its lead actors Kumar and Radhika Apte, who played Muruganantham’s estranged wife who didn’t share his passion for finding cheap solutions to women’s menstruation issues. In his village, sanitary pads were overpriced making it inaccessible to most women.
“But after this film, if women say that ‘in our monthly budget, don’t buy this much milk instead we buy pads or say we don’t need fairness creams as much as I need pads’ then it’s the dramatic shift we are looking at. Or at least, in my mind, if a woman after seeing the film says I still can’t afford sanitary pads, but at least I will take that cloth and hang it out in the sunshine, not under my sari where it is getting fungus and bacteria, that would be a small significant shift,” she said.
While Khanna is pragmatic about the power of cinema and its limitations as a catalyst for social change, her biggest win currently is that her production prodded many into speaking up about a subject that was wrapped in layers of taboo and stigma.
Asked if she faced resistance from the industry itself, she said: “In everything that I have done so far when it comes to storytelling, I look for interesting conduits to take my message across. Whether I pass that message by making you laugh or I interest you by my words or intrigue you, I look for a compelling ways. Our story of Pad Man has such interesting components to it. Arunachalam is such an interesting person. He’s an innovator who has broken out of his restrictions of a limited education.”
Khanna, who has also written a short story about him in her book The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, describes him as a whimsical character with a riveting life story to tell.
“Nobody dissuaded me from the topic because we had come up with an interesting, compelling way to spread the message all the while entertaining people. Everyone whom I spoke to was very enthusiastic,” Khanna added.
The subject, Muruganantham, told said that Pad Man was “infotainment at its best”.
It’s safe to say that Hindi cinema has been pushing the boundaries and stepping out of their comfort zones. Mainstream actors such as Anushka Sharma, Kalki Koechlin, Aamir Khan and Richa Chaddha are taking risks by experimenting with roles that aren’t insular.
If Sharma produced the horror film Pari in which she played a bloody human-beast, Khan played a patriarchal figure in the wrestling drama Dangal. They all seem to have found the right formula of blending Bollywood tropes and burning social issues.
“But if I were to tell people that I wanted to make a documentary on this topic, then perhaps it would have been difficult with financial backers. But we didn’t face any resistance at all,” she said.
Initially, Khanna thought of making a smaller movie but the more she gave it thought she decided that such a movie with a lesser-known star may have restricted reach. In India, film stars and cricketers are idolised and are considered the paragons of perfection.
“Once we began talking about it and started discussing it in detail, we realised that when you have your idol standing up and holding up a sanitary pad, then my job is half done… Within two or three weeks of discussion, it was clear that Akshay was the right choice.”
In the film, Kumar was seen wearing pink underwear and testing his sanitary pad prototypes himself, something unheard of a decade ago where Bollywood heroes were shown as all-conquering, muscled-up men.
In a separate e-mail interview, Kumar told us that his wife as a producer encouraged him to do his best since it was her “passion project”.
“It makes me so proud to work on something with her tackles an impactful topic like this… Working on this film has made me realise that I wish I had known about this [menstruation] since childhood. Because our society believes it should never be a topic of discussion, I didn’t even know that my own sister could be going through this — even whilst I shared the same room as her. It’s very much an upsetting thought — being educated 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 whilst on their period,” said Kumar in that mail.
Meanwhile, Khanna claims that her husband didn’t need much convincing to take on this role. Both were equally excited about creating a film that would leave an impact and were on board together.
“We were looking at telling a story that had ramifications beyond just entertainment,” said Khanna. It took her nine months to just convince the real-life crusader to adapt his life into a movie.
“I joke with him that with that much time I could have produced my third child but it took me that long time to convince him. But it was worth the wait.”
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