‘Padman’ is fiction, based on Arunachalam Muruganantham, the entrepreneur who designed a low cost machine for producing affordable sanitary napkins for women in rural India. The movie begins in a very obvious manner, with embellishments on the man’s naivety and his single minded persistence in trying to solve the problems of hygiene and comfort during the menstrual period of millions of women in India. He is seen as a weirdo by everyone he comes in contact with, and his single minded focus on the monthly cycle of his wife and sisters mark him out, in his very traditional community, as a pervert.
The problem with the film is not its predictability. Though it is clear that the village eccentric, Lakshmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar), will eventually become the celebrity, Padman, the exaggerated reactions of the women to this obtrusive man who meddles with what they perceive as exclusively the domain of their gender, goes on for just too long. Lakshmi is boycotted by his dismissive sisters; his unsympathetic mother walks out of the house; his conformist wife (Radhika Apte) packs her bags and goes back to her family. It is a black and white presentation of the reaction of rural women, reduced en masse to a gaggle of geese honking loudly in protest at the very idea of locally made sanitary pads, all the way to the movie’s interval.
Lakshmi's tryst with the fractionally priced sanitary pad, his experimentation to find the right combination of absorbance, dryness and comfort, turns the first half of ‘Padman' into a docu-drama. It takes the arrival of the lively and urbane Pari (Sonam Kapoor) to inject some life into the repetitiveness of the plot. She is a celebrated tabla player and an MBA, the daughter of an emancipated single father, and gives him the first feedback on his homemade pad. Struck by his ingenuity, she kickstarts his project with new ideas, and instills confidence into him. She also ends up falling in love with him.
The verve that Sonam brings to her role transforms the second half of ‘PadMan’ into a much more engaging film. Akshay, too, lifts his performance, and their combination works as a ‘jugalbandi’, which accelerates the pace and makes for a much more watchable movie. Unfortunately, this energy may have been infused too late, because the depiction of that traditional and conservative India, full of cliches that are bracketed in hyperbole, has tired us out in the first half.
The altruistic fictional PadMan is a wonderful cinematic icon, and the real maccoy, the path breaking Muruganantham, certainly deserves a movie based on his work. But his story could have been dramatised better.