Opening this week

‘Pad Man’ film review: Akshay Kumar makes an earnest message-movie watchable

R Balki’s film, based on the achievements of Arunachalam Muruganantham, is carried along by its genial star.

Countless Hindi films promise one thing but deliver another. Look behind the poster and beyond the trailer and all you see are insignificant storms and fury.

R Balki’s movies cannot be accused of cranking up the hype. They neatly fit one-line briefs with enough substance to justify their length. Cheeni Kum: curmudgeonly older cook falls for much younger woman, sending her father into shock. Paa: Amitabh Bachchan plays a character stricken with progeria, with his real-life son Abhishek Bachchan playing his father. Shamitabh: Amitabh Bachchan becomes the voice of a mute aspiring actor. Ki & Ka: the wife works while spouse becomes a house husband.

The finger-on-pulse canniness that the advertising professional brings to his movies is very evident in Pad Man. Balki’s latest movie, based on Coimbatore social activist Arunachalam Muruganantham, is exactly what the trailer promised: untrained man makes low-cost sanitary pads for his wife, sparking a revolution. In trying to free his wife Gayatri (Radhika Apte) from the possibility of infection, Laxmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar) becomes the living symbol of jugaad economics, a poster boy for Make in India, and a shining example of the belief expressed in the movie that “India should be seen…as a country of one billion minds.”

Laxmikant is outraged that Gayatri uses a dirty cloth instead of a sanitary pad and is confined to a corner of the house for the duration of her menstrual cycle. His growing obsession with sanitary napkins and commonsensical experiments to create an affordable alternative horrify Gayatri and his extended family. “Why is your life stuck between a woman’s legs?” Gayatri asks her husband in between tearing up and burying her face into the folds of her sari.

Laxmikant’s war might be waged in the name of his tradition-bound and submissive wife, but it is another woman who nudges him towards success. Business school graduate Pari (Sonam Kapoor) becomes Laxmikant’s champion, sales and marketing head, and bridge to the world beyond the shack where he churns out his affordable pads. Pari falls for Laxmikant – he is, after all, played by one of Bollywood’s most affable movie stars. For all its emphasis on the spirit of homegrown entrepreneurship, it is love that fuels the engines of creativity in Pad Man.

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Pad Man (2018).

This isn’t exactly new territory. Muruganantham has already been the subject of a clutch of documentaries while the small-budget 2017 movie Phullu explored low-cost sanitary pads. Pad Man is more upscale than Phullu and far more engaging, even though, unlike that movie, it focuses less on the stigma attached to menstruation and more on Laxmikant’s efforts.

The 139-minute movie sketches out Laxmikant’s ingenuity in often redundant detail, to the accompaniment of an insistently uplifting background score and contrived soap operatics. It’s eventually a hop, skip and jump between the first disastrous attempts to manufacture pads in the backyard and recognition from the Indian Institute of Technology and the United Nations as well as a Padma Shri.

Laxmikant’s victory is more easily won than 2017’s Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. In that movie too, a husband battled entrenched orthodoxy (this time relating to indoor latrines) to win back his wife. Like Pad Man, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha has an unmistakable public-service announcement quality, but it explores the cost of tackling social taboos with greater depth and perspicacity.

Pad Man tries to offset its intrinsic earnestness by adopting fast cutting and endless action, but the complexity of Laxmikant’s battle against stigma and prejudice is lost in the process. Manufactured momentum doesn’t often translate into momentousness.

The common element between Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Pad Man is the star who depicts the socially conscious and self-sacrificing feminist hero. Akshay Kumar’s recent career turn towards message-oriented movies has seen him in the mould of a reformer. Despite the dull purposefulness of some of his recent roles, the movies manage to work because of Kumar’s ability to justify mansplaining as a duty towards womankind. (Sample Laxmikantism: “How can a man call himself a man if he cannot protect women?”)

Balki makes Kumar work hard to distinguish Laxmikant from the hero of Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Kumar’s astutely judged Laxmikant is assertive without being aggressive, and he convincingly portrays a bit of the madness and lack of ego that possessed Arunachalam Muruganantham to go where few men have gone before.

A more refined actor might have conveyed Laxmikant’s obsession better, but Akshay Kumar’s role here is to convince sceptics. What Kumar lacks in acting skills, he makes up for with his conviction and warmth. Whenever he is in the frame – which is all the time – Pad Man loses some of its preachiness. The sequence in which Laxmikant delivers a lecture at the United Nations in broken English is dragged on endlessly, but Kumar’s geniality carries the moment through.

The most radical aspect of Pad Man is the fact that the movie exists in the first place. It is rare, indeed unthinkable, to imagine an A-list Bollywood production about a subject like menstruation. Pad Man comes with its own applause track, with lots of sequences that attempt to prod viewers into mentally bursting out of their seats in amazement at Laxmikant’s audacity. In reality, the movie contains no astonishment or surprise. But in proceeding exactly as depicted by the trailer, Pad Man proves that sometimes, the message is far more important than the way in which it has been communicated.

Radhika Apte and Akshay Kumar in Pad Man (2018). Image credit: Mrs Funnybones Movies.
Radhika Apte and Akshay Kumar in Pad Man (2018). Image credit: Mrs Funnybones Movies.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.