R Balki: ‘This is a classic love story where the pad happens to be a reason’

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R Balki brings menstrual health to the big screen. He tells how the film can educate the young

AN EIGHT-YEAR-OLD, R Balki, who grew up in a joint family in Bangalore, remembers seeing his mother spending too much time in the home’s verandah a few days every month. She’d eat, sleep and do all her important chores from outside the house. He would sometimes serve her food and bring her a blanket, but as a boy he always wondered, ‘Why wouldn’t she enter the house?’ It was much later, when they started living as a nuclear family, that he realised it was because she was menstruating and women were expected to abstain from cooking or even doing regular housework during their period. “I couldn’t understand then that it was discrimination which came from sheer conditioning and ignorance,” he says.

Today, almost four decades on, not much has changed except that Balki has made a film on the subject, which is still considered taboo in many parts of our country. Padman, though a period drama quite literally, is obvious in its intent. The film contrives too many coincidences to make PadMan Laxmi Prasad’s goals materialise, but eventually you want to see the film for what it’s trying to say.

This is one of India’s first mainstream feature films highlighting the importance of menstrual hygiene. It does so through the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a man who revolutionalised India’s sanitary napkin market by inventing a machine that produces low-cost pads. “For most people, he was a crazy man, obsessed with making a pad for his wife. So about five minutes into the film, you get used to the idea, and then it’s about the journey of the people whose lives change because of him. This is my film for the masses, and by far the easiest one to make because the story was already there. All I had to do was do justice to such an extraordinary journey,” Balki says.

Last year, we saw a smaller indie film called Phullu with actor Sharib Hashmi, and a 2013 documentary Menstrual Man was also based on the same subject. Though a strong film, Phullu failed to reach the number of people it should have. PadMan has both the money and the might to push its message to remote corners of India, where it hopes to transform attitudes, even if only in small ways. Akshay Kumar in the film is nothing like the original PadMan, a paragon of modesty. Akshay’s character Laxmi Prasad loses no opportunity to deliver punch lines to make his point. But Balki believes that cinema, in whichever form, is the best way to communicate with Indian audiences. “Cinema is the beginning of change and it’s the most powerful medium in this country. Nothing is more powerful. I realise it is going to be difficult to break years of practice and conditioning among both men and women who have seen menstruation as something disempowering, rather than something natural. But if PadMan can even start a conversation, it would fulfill our purpose,” says Balki.

As an ad-filmmaker, Balki has created many films for popular sanitary brands through a 25-year advertising career. These are brands that 80 per cent of women in India can’t afford to buy, though. Sitting in his Bandra office which he shares with wife and filmmaker Gauri Shinde, Balki reveals how he sent back every brand that came forth to tie up with this film, unless they reduced the cost of their pads. “I told all of them that ‘I can’t tie up with you unless you reduce the price of a pad to Rs 2’. None of them could do it because their cost of production is so high. Which is why someone like Muruganantham and what he has achieved becomes [so significant]; his business runs on a non-profit basis. If he starts making money, the pads will be expensive and that defeats the entire purpose of it,” says Balki, who says his interactions with Muruganantham reminded him of the importance of honesty.

Muruganantham’s earnestness is evident when he speaks on public platforms. He is far removed from both Balki and his protagonist Akshay Kumar’s world of film and drama. His life in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, is modest. He spends his mornings at his workshop producing low-cost sanitary wear (with mainly women employees), his afternoons meeting students or young entrepreneurs, and his evenings with wife Shanti. He’s not looking to make money, but he’s looking for a way to sustain his business model that has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of women across Indian villages.

It is going to be difficult to break years of practice among both men and women who see menstruation as something disempowering. If PadMan can even start a conversation, it will fulfil our purpose

During the film’s research, Balki remembers Muruganantham signing blank cheques in the workshop and keeping them aside for his suppliers. “I asked him why he would do that and he said he had no money to lose. People will cheat him only if he was making extra, but there’s only that much money in the bank and his suppliers would just fill their respective amounts on the cheques every month. Here is a man who has chosen a business where he never makes money, but it’s still serving its purpose. He’s happy he’s sustaining himself. He’s never going to be rich or wealthy, he’s never going to buy a house, never going to have hoards of bank balance, but he is very happy. That is rare,” says Balki, for whom this man’s life was a classic story of both emotional strength and social awakening.

He speaks of how Muruganantham’s wife Shanti, after separating from him during the early days of his research, is now a changed woman. “She is the only woman in her colony who decorates a basket of pads with flowers and distributes it to the entire neighbourhood during Diwali. She told me she learnt along the way. The reason he started this was because he couldn’t bear to watch his wife use a rag during her period. She was the crux to his entire idea. She left him because she was embarrassed that he’d speak to every woman he met about their period, but now she knows why. For me, here was a relationship that has gone through so much pain and turbulence, and yet they are so in love.”

This love story, he says, is at the heart of the film. “When I spoke to Muruganantham about the film, all he had to say was it should be entertaining and engaging, otherwise nobody would listen to what we’re trying to say. So this is a classic love story where the pad happens to be a reason. Issues have to be addressed on the way, but the story is about people, their feelings and their emotions. There’s no point in designing this kind of film for opinion makers. They already know about it. It’s for people whose opinions need to be changed,” he adds.

Among those are 82 per cent of women in India who still don’t use sanitary pads due to lack of awareness, social conditioning and poverty. Balki happened to meet some of these women from Punjab and Tamil Nadu and saw how deep-rooted the shame attached to menstruation was. “Many women are wary talking to a man about this because the men in their lives don’t give a damn. So they feel ‘No man will ever understand what they are going through’, which is probably true,” he says. “I was talking to one of them about why she uses a cloth and she was giggling in the middle of the conversation. Later, a younger girl started talking to me about how she began using pads, and the other lady who was shy immediately joined the conversation. They just need to know someone is with them, and someone is listening, and they will open up.”

THE JOURNEY OF PadMan has made Balki and other men associated with the film a little more sensitive towards gender issues. But here is a filmmaker whose leading women have always been empowered. In ten years, Balki has directed five feature films and the women in his films have been frontrunners. In Cheeni Kum (2007), Tabu drove the love story between a younger woman and much older man. In Paa (2009), Vidya Balan was a single mother striving to give her child afflicted by progeria a happy life. In Ki and Ka (2016), Kareena Kapoor represented the ideal independent woman of today. And in English Vinglish (2012), which he produced, Sridevi’s journey was one of a housewife breaking barriers to come into her own.

“I don’t strive for situations where I show strong women. I just put them in extraordinary situations and make them perform the way anyone would in that space. Like in Paa, what Vidya did was the most natural thing any woman in a situation like hers would do. Yes, I was careful about how I showed Vidya’s mother in the film. How a woman reacts to her unmarried daughter who is pregnant is really revealing of her attitude and mindset. In the film, she simply says, ‘It’s your call’. Nothing else. That’s a moment of strength for me,” he adds.

Though all of Balki’s films might not have seen commercial success, he has started conversations within Indian cinema. The wit, humour and storytelling in his films have been recognised more than in many big-budget Hindi cinema ventures. He believes nothing much has changed for him in 25 years of storytelling, though, and there’s more to be done.

“I haven’t seen myself change. I am as bad as I ever was. I never learnt. After two decades of advertising, I knew how to pfaff better. I was quite late at that too. In advertising, I can explain away anything quite clearly. In cinema, I still have a long way to go. Yes, each story you learn a little, don’t make the same mistakes and you learn the craft a little more. When people say, ‘This is right’ and ‘This is wrong’, I have a problem with that. I feel we shouldn’t take the rules so seriously—you forget to play the game,” he says.

Balki held the first screening of PadMan for 400 school children along with their parents and teachers, and he expects it to be the first step towards the much required attitude shift towards a girl coming of age. “Yes, there is a huge amount of education needed for men on this issue and men have to be champions of it. Plus, it’s much more difficult to change mindsets when you’re an adult. But it’s very important for children to watch this film. I have designed the film in such a way that they understand it as simply as they can. If you’re able to inculcate change and awareness within children, then you’ve won a big battle. Then you have a whole generation which can change,” he says.

Balki leaves us with a little lesson Muruganantham taught him one day on their way to work, a lesson on truth that he hopes to use in his own life more often. “We had just had lunch in his house and he asked me to drop him off at a college nearby where he had a lecture. He was in his same workshop clothes and they were all greased up. I said to him that he must wear black so he can hide all this, and he said, ‘I am working in a workshop, so why should I tell people I am not working? Let them see, no? What is the point in working and not showing it to people? Why do we hesitate to tell people we are tired? If I’m tired, it’s because I have worked hard. Where is the shame in that? Most people do something and try to hide that from people. They don’t want to be transparent. I don’t see the point in that.’”