Director: R. Balki
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte, Sonam Kapoor
Sanctimonious moral indignation that arrives with a genial, gummy smile but is then unleashed with deeply earnest words is a deadly package. It’s hard to criticise.
Jo bolega that inside the thin crust of smug humility and the pretence of greater good sits a large, bristling ego, uska moonh kala.
First potties and now sanitary pads. These are icky subjects and when a man takes up cudgels on behalf of women’s easy access to them, wrapped up in beti bachchao emotion, too many are floored.
And an alpha superstar waving a sasta, tikau sanitary napkin, then placing it in a pink panty and putting it on to experience for himself how women chum is so revolutionary a sight for the Indian screens that many will clap and hoot and talk of change.
But, it’s one thing to want to tell an inspiring, interesting story that involves a man’s grit against prejudices, taboos that are harming women, and quite another to seize it as an opportunity to toady up to the powers that be and burnish your own credentials as Bollywood’s No. 1 nationalist producer-actor.
Akshay Kumar is too obviously driven by the later — an egoistic instinct devoted to self-promotion.
Though based on the life, work, struggles and triumphs of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a simple but singular man from Coimbatore, Pad Man doesn’t do him the courtesy of calling its lead character by his name.
But since vanity thy name now is Ageing Bollywood Stars, a strange romance is bestowed upon him that neither the film nor we needed.
These silly things, Akshay Kumar’s relentless ego trip, and writer-director R. Balki’s inept writing and direction together make Pad Man a rather stupid movie that bored and irritated me.
If you do watch Pad Man, here’s a game you could entertain yourself with. Count the number of scenes or frames in the film which don’t have Akshay Kumar. If you hit double-digits, WhatsApp me.
Pad Man, set in 2001, opens to a lovely song when the shaadi, suhagraat of Lakshmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar) and Gayatri (Radhika Apte) are underway.
In the course of that song we learn that Lakshmi is deeply in love with his wife and very tuned into all that bothers, hassles, hurts or is detrimental to her well-being.
Onions present him with the first opportunity to do something for her. And then the cycle carrier.
Thoo-thoo on men, the film seems to say, who have walked past women weeping pyaaz ke ansoo or haven’t found inspiration for invention when they’ve seen women massaging their sore bums after a ride on their bicycles.
Lakshmi is not just in love, but also in touch with his inner aurat and she goads him to do special stuff for Gayatri. And since he works in a karkhana where he fixes, welds stuff, it’s not a long journey from idea to a workable appliance, instrument.
Warmed-up by small-small tests, Lakshmi is all set for the big challenge. That comes when Gayatri is sent tadipaar from the house. She has to live in its outskirts, i.e. the balcony, for five days of her periods.
Lakshmi is shocked. He doesn’t get it, which is strange since he’s grown up in a house full of women — his mother and two sisters.
Still, having stumbled upon it late in life, this auraton ki dikkat agonises him. He’s tortured not so much by why they are considered apavitra when chumming, but about the unhygienic cloth Gayatri uses.
So, like Mr Muruganantham, he purchases a packet of sanitary pads, but it’s too expensive. If all the women in the house start using pads, there’ll be no money left for milk.
So off he goes to a mystical place where there’s a little pond surrounded by flowers. And under the lovely, golden glow of a smiling sun he creates a pad.
Gayatri uses it, but it leaks. So Lakshmi tries again. But that leaks as well. Embarrassed and fed up with his monthly menstrual obsession, she refuses to have anything to do with his concoctions any more.
But the thought that some women use ash and some die of infection drives Lakshmi to peddle his pads to family, friends, sisters, girls of a medical college. He’s taking, thinking women’s hygiene, suraksha, they are saying sharam, besharam. But he’s dogged, he chases them with his pads, and uses accidents, things people say as light-bulb moments to keep improving, improvising.
The more obsessed he gets with pads, the more misunderstood he is. Lakshmi is called a freak, a pervert, a man whose head is stuck between women’s legs. Dheele naade waala aadmi.
Gayatri can’t take the shame and goes to her parents house to sulk, setting him free to convert her sharam into sammaan.
The second half of Pad Man stars two things — loads of stupidity and gibberish, and another leading lady, Pari (Sonam Kapoor).
The tabla playing fairy, who takes Lakshmi and his pad mania under her charming wings, helps him take flight. Soon, awards, speeches in august halls follow.
There are a few sweet, warm moments in Balki’s Pad Man. Most of these are either moments when Lakshmi’s obsessive endeavour actually changes the lives of women, or scenes in which he speechifies, especially the address to the UN.
Packed with slogans we often hear these days — entrepreneurship, innovation, nation’s pride, empowering women, Indian problems and Indian talent to overcome them — Akshay makes it work. That despite the fact that it is rather fake and entirely lacking the self-deprecating, touching humour of the real Mr Muruganantham, a man who set a goal way bigger than him and achieved it.
That’s one of the many problems with this film.
Throughout Pad Man, Akshay’s Lakshmi has artificial, stagy conversations — with most characters, and with us.
In fact, so star-driven is the film that we hardly hear the women talking amongst themselves. They are only, always reacting to Lakshmi’s pad mania. Apart from that, it seems, they have nothing to talk about. Not even Gayatri. They exist only as dakiya-noosi khayals he must fight and change.
Gayatri, in fact, is merely a receptacle for Lakshmi’s gyaan and sanitary pads in various stages of malfunction . Her character exists only to misconstrue and react to his obsession during those five days. The film has no use for her in the rest 25 days of a month. Despite that, Radhika Apte crackles and brings her character to life.
Given that Pad Man is all about Lakshmi, it’s strange that even his character is a clumsy concoction of Akshay the star and Akshay trying to portray a real character.
We get glimpses of Lakshmi’s obsessive nature, how caring he is, yet he remains kind of indeterminate because his character is partly powered by the Punjabi wit and warm sparkle of Akshay the star — like when he calls his mother “lalchi budhia” — and partly by trying to be a dedicated, serious pad-creator.
Akshay is charming. His natural jhallapan is endearing. But the film doesn’t use that khul ke, neither does it let him get under the skin of the character with some measure of honesty. This aadha idhar, aadha udhar leaves his Lakshmi vague and disappointing.
That’s because Balki is an inarticulate writer and director.
Long, meaningful storytelling, where characters grow and come to life is not his thing. He sets up scenes nicely for his characters to pose in and say this and that. But they work only in short bursts, never fully realised, never coming together to form a wholesome, believable character.
Just like his plot here which is driven by moments that can at best be described as desultory gibberish.
Like when a chumming Lakshmi jumps into Ganga and a panchayat is called. Or the nonsensical stuff Lakshmi mutters and memorises when he watches the stages of the pad machine that leads to his big invention. These moments throw the story forward, but they themselves remain fuzzy.
There’s also, of course, tabla playing Pari and the needless hint at a romance.
Sonam Kapoor is lovely. But the arrival of her character, in gorgeous linen, pastel ensembles, is like a big Bollywood satisfying burp the movie was desperately craving after suffering indigestion from having to play real-real, garib-garib for such a long time.
The time wasted on Pari could have been used to talk about many issues linked to periods — temple entry, for example. Or they could have show us the buffet of used sanitary pads that Mr Muruganantham would pour over in his backyard.
The icky quotient of that may be high, but, hello, if we can take Akshay’s bloody crotch, surely it’s time we see a used sanitary napkin on the big screen.
But then, a man was directing the film. So that may be too much to expect.
Someone, anyone, Balki or Twinkle Khanna, whose Muruganantham story inspired the film, should have paid attention to Pari when she says, “Auraton ko karen do auraton ka kaam”, and dialled Gauri Shinde’s number.
But, I guess, unwrapping sanitary pads and waving them is our faces is how far Bollywood's feminism goes.