If marks were given for good intentions and sincerity, Phullu would top the university. But if marks were also given for presentation and execution, Phullu would be somewhere at the lower levels.
Stripped of the glamour that invariably clings to Bollywood depictions of rural India, Abhishek Saxena’s movie is set in a representative corner of Uttar Pradesh that was probably pretty once but is now overwhelmed by plastic¸ poverty and narrow-minded women. These women use Phullu (Sharib Ali Hashmi) as their errand boy to buy them daily items and unmentionables from the city. Although he spends a lot of time with the female of the species, has a mother and a sister, and gets married, Phullu discovers the existence of menstruation very, very late in life.
The barely employed Phullu finds a mission – to make low-cost pads so that the women are spared infection. His monstrous mother (Nutan Surya) screams even louder than usual; his sister is horrified, and only his wife Bhigni (Jyoti Sethi) supports him.
Even if, for the sake of justifying the movie’s premise, we accept that Phullu is the district’s last standing innocent, it is hard to accept that most of the women have never heard of or seen sanitary pads and prefer homegrown methods. The complete absence of a television set means that these villagers have never been exposed to the chirpy women who pour blue liquid on pads and wave them around in commercials every single day.
Apart from giving Hashmi, who made his breakthrough in the comedy Filmistaan (2014), a platform to display his acting skills, Phullu doesn’t get anywhere close to giving the female characters a say in the matter. The well-intentioned message in Shaheen Iqbal’s screenplay is squandered by unthinking mansplaining and blind faith in Phullu’s ability to divine a problem where none existed.
However, the movie does pack a slim premise with plenty of believable rural detail. The filmmakers manage to deftly normalise mensutration within a mainstream context. A conversation between Phullu and a fairground hustler (Inaamulhaq) skewers orthodox attitudes towards a necessary aspect of a woman’s life, but it is an isolated discussion.
Perhaps inadvertently, the more distressing aspect of Phullu isn’t that the women don’t use sanitary pads. It is the dirty and rundown state of Phullu’s village and the unrelenting poverty and ignorance that mark all the characters. Access to sanitary pads appears to be the least of their worries.
There are several examples of low-cost sanitary pad manufacturing in the country, and another movie in 2018, Padman, is expected to come to the rescue of rural women. Starring Akshay Kumar as a fictionalised version of Arunachalam Muruganantham, Padman can be expected to be an upscale version of Phullu. At least Phullu has its very real and totally believable poverty.