Men, and the society they run, usually only care about women’s bodies when it benefits them: Sex. Pregnancy. Household labor. But not their overall health, their care, their desires. When women push for change, they are punished. When men push for change, often women are still punished.
Pad Man is the fictionalized story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, an activist and inventor from Tamil Nadu who created a way for women to easily and inexpensively make sanitary pads. Here, he is Lakshmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar), the plot and characters based on a short story by Twinkle Khanna; she also produced.
The film is fantastic. It openly and honestly tackles the topic of menstruation, something that has never been addressed in Indian cinema (per Wikipedia) and only rarely in Hollywood movies. Pad Man provides sensitive portrayals of a variety of experiences: Lakshmi’s love and concern for his wife Gayatri (Radhika Apte), as well as his surprise at her experience (despite sharing a household with a mother and three sisters); Radhika’s shame and desire to stay within an oppressive system; Pari (Sonam Kapoor) and her father’s modern, urban viewpoints.
Gayatri, and the other women in her village, must remain outside of the house while they are menstruating. They use rags to collect the blood. Lakshmi buys pads for his wife, but she refuses to use them because of their cost. He then makes her pads from cotton and muslin, but they are not absorbent enough and cause Gayatri to bleed through her clothes. Lakshmi becomes obsessed with perfecting an inexpensive pad, but his family and community view this as a dirty topic and him as a pervert. Gayatri begs him to stop, as she is the one who must endure shame and scorn. But he cannot. Eventually, his entire family leaves him, so he leaves the village to continue his research.
After years of work, and taking on R90,000 debt, Lakshmi meets Pari by chance. She is in town for a performance and has forgotten her pads. Lakshmi gives her his, and visits her for feedback. Finishing her MBA, she sees a business opportunity and helps Lakshmi sell the pads and enter innovation competitions. Eventually, they travel to the United Nations to talk about the importance of menstrual hygiene and providing women a way to access the materials they need. Finally Lakshmi returns home a hero, and to his wife.
The film celebrates Lakshmi’s hard work and also shows the importance of connections and luck. He works for a college professor for a time, hoping to gain knowledge about cellulose fibers to make a better pad. But it is the professor’s son who shows him Google and helps him order the fiber in English over the phone. Lakshmi is walking alone one night when Pari’s car pulls up, asking for a pharmacy. The car has the hotel’s name on it, and so Lakshmi is able to find Pari again. Pari’s father is a professor at IIT and so is able to suggest Lakshmi enter a competition.
But besides luck, these developments show how great ideas are a collective effort. Lakshmi has the idea and the technical know how. Pari has the business sense. Other women they work with make insightful suggestions. The professor’s son shows that even children can offer valuable help.
As the two female protagonists, Gayatri and Pari are foils but not antagonists. Gayatri is rural, traditional, and wants to hold up tradition; Pari is urban, modern, and breaking tradition. But both are treated with sympathy and understanding. One woman is not better than the other: they have simply had different experiences and expectations despite growing up in the same country at roughly the same time (it’s unclear if the two women are the same age).
Both women also remind Lakshmi that for all of his desire and technical ability, he doesn’t understand women. He is well meaning, and his creation really is improving people’s lives, but he embodies mansplaining: thinking he knows better than women. Of course, had he listened to Gayatri, he wouldn’t have made his invention. But perhaps had he approached her with more understanding, they could have created an understanding. Likewise, he only notices the problem when it affects his wife and their life together: how had he been blind to how menstruation impacted his family and friends?
Indeed, the differences in men and women’s lives is woven throughout the film. Gayatri sits outside on the porch, secluded from her family, watching boys play in the street. At the river, boys splash in the water while women work, washing clothes. A young woman is celebrated when she reaches puberty, receiving new clothes and a song and dance, but then is forced onto the porch alone. We see far more women’s labor, but the men have the money.
Amitabh Bachchan makes a cameo, giving a speech at the innovation competition. He points out that India is not a country of a billion people but of a billion minds. Lakshmi embodies that spirit, and his invention means women can now more easily lend their minds to innovation and invention. In a speech of his own, Lakshmi says the country is strong when the women are strong. Studies have born this out.
Ultimately, Pad Man breaks taboos and shows how women’s empowerment is a joint effort. Empowerment is not easy to achieve and takes many forms. Empowerment is Pari earning an MBA and Gayatri being able to stay inside her home. It’s the benefits to the community, to the family, and the individual. And the world.