Interview Hindi

Pad Man director R Balki: Focus should be on health and hygiene, not lifestyle

The filmmaker brings to light some sad realities pertaining to menstrual hygiene in India and shares what he learnt from Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man on whom the film is based.

Keyur Seta

Director R Balki is not known for making mass entertainers. But he has broken the norm for Pad Man, which stars Akshay Kumar. The reason, he tells a group of reporters, is that he wants the message of menstrual hygiene to be spread far and wide, particularly among the section of the population that is unaware of its importance.

The former ad man also shares memories of his first meeting with Arunachalam Muruganantham, the hero on whom the film Pad Man is based.

Excerpts from a Q&A session with the filmmaker:

The topic of menstrual pads is not spoken about openly in our society. How confident are you that people will throng to the theatres?

People are ready to talk and ready to see. People never think whether they should see this topic. They only think whether this film should be seen. Or whether this film is interesting or boring. That is all they think of.

People are just waiting. Somebody has to bring in change before it becomes normal. Then immediately after two weeks, people are talking about pads. 

Because of Pad Man, people have said ‘pad’ some 1,000 times in the past few months. They must have never said it before. So, if people are ready to say ‘pad’ without feeling shy while buying from shops, that much is enough.

If it is in the public and a film is talking, people are not going to be hesitant the next time. Somebody has to do it first. You can’t wait for everybody and then say it’s a safe subject because it is already done. Who will see it then?

R Balki

What are some shocking facts that you came across in your research?

Every point in this subject is shocking. You know what all women use? First of all, it is shocking that 82% of women in the country don’t use pads.

Okay, they use cloth. We understand that. But it is shocking how they dry the cloth. We all know that people hide the cloth even when drying it on the clothesline. It will be under the saree. It won’t even get the sun’s rays.

I am sure you have seen this documentary somewhere. In a small slum, there is a small washing area. They wash all the clothes in the common area. But this cloth is washed in dirty water. They don’t believe even the water should be contaminated by it. It’s so funny and scary. 

So many men have never seen a pad in their lives. They have never touched it. They don’t know what is happening to the woman in those five days.

That’s why this film is not about preaching. It is just about a man who is concerned about the woman’s subject. It is not about a woman who is concerned. This is how people will get up and say that if a man has no problems speaking about it, why would you? A man is trying to find solutions.

How has your personal experience been knowing about periods and pads?

I myself buy pads from the shop now. When I was young, my mother used to sit outside [during her periods]. I couldn’t understand why. Today I feel sad thinking I didn’t talk to her and ask how she was feeling.

Much before this film, I needed to buy pads for Gauri [Balki's wife and filmmaker Gauri Shinde]. I found that it is so difficult for people to talk about it. I remember when the trailer was released, people were watching and discussing. They would speak about it in hushed tones.

We were shooting some promo and the trailer came out. The security guards and people serving us were watching. One person said that his wife keeps the pad in the same way, but hers is green, and this is red. They were actually discussing something they had never discussed in their life.

This is not like Toilet, about which people are speaking and there is this Swachch Bharat movement. Nobody was talking about this. When you are doing the life of the man who has spent his life on this topic, it’s a great thing for people to know. Darr kya hai? Yes, people were hesitating, but once it comes on the cinema screen, the conversation changes. When a big actor does it, people start talking about it a lot more openly. It’s funny how powerful cinema is in our country. 

With Akshay Kumar on the sets of Pad Man

As it is a sensitive subject, how did you make sure it does not appear objectionable to anyone?

I haven’t shown anything wrong. It’s a sensitive subject about women. I didn’t think about how it will reflect at the box office. I have never thought about the box office till date. The idea was not to make sure I don’t say anything wrong; it is about making sure I don’t show anything wrong. I am not a woman. So I have to be correct about it. Over here, Gauri played a role. She used to point out and give inputs. Thank god I have a woman in my life (laughs). 

There is a mentality in our society where menstruating women are not allowed to enter temples. Does the film tackle this aspect?

Of course! They sit outside. Even in homes, they are made to sit in the balcony opposite the temple but outside the house.

How and where does this happen? Well, it happens a lot. Even in the toilets, they have to wash after use.

Other things are superstitions. But most important is hygiene, for which they use the wrong things. This needs to be researched. If they don’t go to the kitchen, it is good as they need rest. Women themselves should say, ‘I am not going to cook today. I am not feeling well.’ That is fine. But nobody should stop them from entering the kitchen.

More importantly, we should find out what all women around us and working with us are using. Have we ever asked or bothered? If they have a cold, we give them a Crocin. If the maid at your place is sweeping the floor, does she have pain? What is she using?

I am from the advertising industry. So I know how they do ads. You show people jumping across the fence. It’s not about all that yaar! Women are going to feel the pain and will feel uncomfortable. Nothing you can do about it. Talk about the hygiene. It’s about illness, not lifestyle. Pad is only meant for hygiene. It’s like cotton and Dettol. Why do you use Dettol? Not for lifestyle na? Hey, I will smell good! (Laughs.

The story of Arunachalam Muruganantham belongs to the South. But your film shows the story taking place in a Hindi-speaking town.

If I show the film taking place in South India and everyone in the village speaks chaste Hindi, how will it look? It won’t look right. Instead of the language and region, people should look at the cause. 

Akshay Kumar in a still from Pad Man

You had said once that you would not like to do a biopic. But this film is a biopic. 

Doing a biopic is a big responsibility because the person is living and he has led a fantastic life. Will a film ever do justice to him? That was my biggest fear in making a biopic. It is easy to write my own stories because I can do what the hell I want; nobody is going to question me. No character will jump out and say, why did you do this to me?

Secondly, he has done such an incredible thing. See, I have to take cinematic liberties. Of course I will put more characters in and all that. But I have to stay true to his character. I have to be very clear to his soul. That’s why I was always very scared. 

But I did this and took a chance only because there has been no film made on a pad so far in the world. And I will never get a chance to make a film on it again. Who will make another Pad Man? In the world there hasn’t been a single film, a mainstream commercial film, based on menstrual hygiene pads.

The Hindi film Phullu, which was released last year, was also based on pads.

We actually started this way before. We didn’t know there was any film like that. We had started writing the script much earlier. We didn’t even know this film. It just came and went. I have not seen the film. This is the first film that is officially based on Murugananthan’s story, for which he has given the rights. Anybody else who has done a film on this thing has done it illegally. You cannot do it without his permission. 

You never thought of taking Pad Man to film festivals considering its subject?

I have not made this film for that. I have made this film to make it reach a lot more people in this country and other countries that are facing this problem.

When we make a film for festivals, it has a different type of language. We might need to cut down on songs, make certain emotions subtle, and other such things. I don’t want a film like that. I want a mainstream film which everybody enjoys with songs and everything. The thought has to go to the people intended. 

Suppose you all are journalists writing on menstrual hygiene. But you already know about it. Why should it reach you? It should reach the person who doesn’t know about it. If they want to make a film for [festivals], it is fine. But this film cannot be for that. As a filmmaker for this subject, I have to be responsible to say that the film is not for 15 people who know about it and are clapping but for 1.5 million who don’t know about it. 

Akshay Kumar and Sonam Kapoor in Pad Man

When and where did you meet Muruganantham for the first time?

It was when I, [co-producer] Twinkle [Khanna] and another friend went to his workshop. I narrated the story to him. He said ‘Let’s eat’ and took us to his house.

When we were going to the airport in the evening, he also got into the car as he had to go to an engineering college to give a lecture. He was wearing ordinary trousers and a shirt which was full of stains and grease. I looked at his shirt. He smiled and said, ‘Are you looking at my stained cloth? Why should I change my shirt? They are calling me because I am a labourer. Let them know I have laboured.’

We always change our clothes thinking that nobody should know we have worked. Why? You have worked, so let people know. What’s wrong? If I am tired at night, I will look tired. Why should I look fresh for you? His logic is so correct.

Has he seen the final film?

Why will he see his own life so fast? But of course I will call and show it to him. I only told him one thing, that it’s not about how true I am to your life. I told him that at the end of the film, even if you say you didn’t do this or that, it’s fine. You should say I wish I had done all this. In some parts.