When Twinkle Khanna and Akshay Kumar asked R Balki if he’d be interested in directing a film on Arunachalam Muruganantham’s life, he was initially hesitant. Muruganantham is the renowned Coimbatore manufacturer who created a machine to mass produce low-cost sanitary pads. His machines, installed in more than 20 states in the country, have also helped create awareness about menstrual hygiene among rural women.
Balki had reservations not with the man or his efforts but with the idea of a biopic. The filmmaker isn’t fond of the genre, and all his films thus far – Cheeni Kum (2007), Paa (2009), Shamitabh (2015) and Ki and Ka (2016) – are fictional tales that he has written.
When Balki learnt more about Muruganantham, he changed his mind. “Muruganantham’s life is like the script of Sholay,” he told Scroll.in in an interview. “He’s had an incredible life. And I thought this is also a great chance to make a film on a topic like menstruation.”
Muruganantham commissioned a machine to produce affordable sanitary pads after he saw his wife using a “nasty rag cloth” during her periods. “I wouldn’t even use that cloth to clean my two-wheeler,” the entrepreneur recalled at a TED talk in Bangalore in 2012. “I asked her why she is adopting such an unhygienic method during her period. She replied that she is aware of sanitary pads but if she and her sister began to use them, we’ll have to cut our family’s milk budget. What’s the connection between sanitary pads and a family’s milk budget? It is affordability.”
Muruganantham met Twinkle Khanna at a conference, and she was so impressed by his efforts that she included a fictionalised story on him in her 2016 book The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad. “She called me one day and asked if I’d like to make a film on him,” Balki said. “I was intrigued, so I said, let me write a script and get back to you. We both wrote our respective drafts – she, for her book and I, for a film, and to be honest, we ended up with two entirely different fictional adaptations of his life.”
Balki wrote his draft with Akshay Kumar in mind for the lead role. “Akshay actually told me I could choose any actor I want,” Balki said. “But I know the kind of actor he is and I felt that he was a perfect fit for what I was writing. Actually, let me rephrase that – I thought I knew what kind of an actor he is. I was quite shocked when he performed. As an actor, Akshay Kumar is absolutely unbelievable. Forget the star, forget the national icon image associated with him, forget everything – just as an actor, his performing abilities are remarkable.”
Padman wil be released on January 26, 2018, and also stars Sonam Kapoor and Radhika Apte. Amitabh Bachchan, a regular in Balki’s films, will appear in a cameo. The soundtrack has been composed by Amit Trivedi.
It was important for Balki to get the script right before everything else. “My desire to do a film comes from what I write,” he said. “It comes from the story I want to tell and how I want to tell it rather than thinking I can shoot it like this or execute it like that.”
For Padman, the filmmaker camped in Indore, where the story is set. “This is a film that is written at the same location where it is shot,” he said. “I went to Indore with my producer Anil Naidu and Swanand Kirkire, who is from the city. Swanand told me about a place called Maheshwar. When I went there, I found the place to be so beautiful that I decided to sit there only and write.”
Balki was keen on treating menstruation with the right attitude in his script. “With such topics, it is easy, especially as men, to misunderstand what women go through,” he explained. “Yes, menstruation must be made a taboo-less subject, but we also need to talk about the way women want it to be talked about. It is a private matter but it is nothing to be ashamed of. But at the same time, you cannot scream ‘I’ve got chums, I’ve got chums’ – it is not that kind of film. The way to be progressive about these topics is to know to not take it to absurd levels. It is about saying yes, it is a natural process and that one must take care of it and be hygienic – that’s all there is to it.”
While doing his research, Balki discovered the different ways in which men and women refer to menstruation across languages and communities. The topic still evokes hushed tones, giggles and chuckles in urban and rural households alike. “There are some pure words for menstruation like ‘mahavari’ and ‘mahina’,” he said. “There’s so much slang associated with this stuff – you’ll be shocked to know that some people call it a test match. It is a five-day affair, right? In many languages, it is a signal and a gesture, and not even a word. So I’ve tried to refer to the uncomfortable things as well, stuff that doesn’t even have a proper word.”
Balki was also clear that the film should not be preachy. “It is not a documentary,” he said. “It should be entertaining. But at the same time, it cannot be insensitive entertainment. I don’t think anyone gets any message through lectures. People get it through entertainment which we wanted to subtly weave in. I hope people, while watching this film, identify with the characters, smile or regret about things they identify with or even end up saying, oh we should be doing this.”
Memories of Balki’s mother, and her experiences with menstruation also influenced his writing. “There would be a place outside the house where she had to sit,” he recalled. “There would be a cloth hanging outside – I remember this distinctly. My grandmother would cook for me. We weren’t allowed to touch my mother. There’s still this impression that men don’t get this stuff, that they cannot buy this stuff, they are ashamed to do so. Why should a man be ashamed? Fortunately, the central character in this film is a man who is more concerned about women than women are sometimes.”
Will Muruganantham approve of the film? “I hope he likes it,” Balki said. “I hope I’ve done justice to his life. This is not just about a truthful portrayal. I think cinema needs to be more than truthful – it needs a certain kind of adaptation, a certain take on a person’s life which is more than just a faithful rendition of his or her life. It is also about capturing the spirit of his life rather than narrating it incident by incident exactly.”
The ad-man and the filmmaker
Balki attributes his filmmaking smarts to the years he spent working as an advertising filmmaker. “I haven’t gone to film school but I know what I know about filmmaking because I’ve worked with some great directors, editors and music directors,” he said. “I absolutely loved advertising. I still do. In advertising, you are making almost a film a week. The medium of expression is video and you get used to thinking visually.”
Some of the witty one-liners and word associations seen in Balki’s films – chhatri (umbrella) in Cheeni Kum, hichki (hiccup) in Paa, for example – give away Balki’s ad-man influence. In Cheeni Kum, the umbrella (also a euphemism for a condom) works as a prop that facilitates the sexual tension-filled encounters between the characters of Buddhadeb (Amitabh Bachchan) and Nina (Tabu). The hiccup in Paa stands in as a one-word description of a plot situation – a child born out of wedlock; one parent is ready to take responsibility, the other deems it a hiccup, an hindrance.
“Most of these come about when discussing a set or writing the script,” Balki explained. “The character in Cheeni Kum, while writing itself, was someone who was carrying an umbrella. The train in Ki and Ka came about while discussing the set with my art director. That I am fascinated by trains is a different matter. But I wondered if a man were to design a house, how would he? Often men have these fantasies which women will tend to hate. A lot of the times, it is about taking something that is personal to a writer and putting it in the film. Otherwise what’s the point in me in particular, writing the film. I’m sure you’ll find a gimmick in this film too.”