Mumbai, 09 Feb 2018 1:27 IST
Akshay Kumar, master of playing the Everyman as hero, holds the film together with another good performance.
Though based on the real-life story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, director R Balki's Pad Man uses a lot of fiction to add emotion, humour and drama to the proceedings.
Balki sets up the inventiveness of the film's central character, Laxmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar), at the outset as we see him building a wooden seat on his bicycle for wife Gayatri (Radhika Apte) and creating a tiny machine to chop onions so that her eyes do not water.
In the same vein, when he finds out that his wife has to use dirty rags during menstruation, apart from being shunned for five days, Laxmi sets out to make an affordable sanitary pad so that Gayatri can stay hygienic and healthy. In the process, he also tries to normalize the subject of menstruation by talking about it openly.
Laxmi, however, needs more test subjects to give him feedback after his first attempt. He tries to get his wife, then his sisters, then medical college students to try out the pads, before finally testing one on himself. A series of events slowly but steadily leads Laxmi to humiliation.
The melodramatic first half, with a sprinkling of humour, thus explores the stigma attached to menstruation and offers the perspective of not just men, but also women, who consider it shameful to even address the issue of menstrual hygiene. It is really the fresh chemistry between Akshay Kumar and Apte that drives this half, which gets soppy intermittently.
Apte's character is mostly seen shedding tears in dramatic scenes. Yet, she is good as the conservative wife who loves her husband though she cannot understand his obsession with the sanitary pad.
Akshay Kumar holds the film together with ease, making you feel for his character. He does an especially brilliant job of stringing together humour and emotion in one of the final scenes when he delivers a rousing speech to an international audience in New York. By now he has become something of an expert at playing the ordinary man who turns into a hero and makes his country proud.
Sonam Kapoor is earnest as Pari, who aids Laxmi in fulfilling his goal of providing cheap sanitary pads to as many women in the villages as possible. But the scenes towards the end, where her character starts falling for Laxmi, feel forced. So, too, does Balki's mandatory Amitabh Bachchan cameo and his speech on India's spirit of innovation.
Balki treads perilously on the thin line between giving a message and getting preachy. He crosses over at times, just about holds back at others. He overdoes the explanation part on many occasions and gets too dramatic at some places. In one scene, when Pari asks Laxmi about himself, we get a quick visual run-through of the film's first half.
Balki also steers clear of the religious origins of the stigma attached to menstruation and focuses only on the social aspect and Laxmi's efforts to bring about change.
The narrative of Pad Man is very similar to Akshay Kumar's previous film Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017). So you start getting a sense of deja vu, particularly in the first half. Also, the screenplay seems too convenient at times.
The idea of making a mainstream entertainer on a taboo subject like menstruation is, however, commendable. And so the importance of this film in India's pop culture cannot be ignored. It packages an inspiring story and opens up a conversation on a delicate matter in a decently entertaining manner.
The success of a film with an overt social message, as in Pad Man, lies in whether the audience can connect to the human story at its core. And while Balki falters in many areas, he does succeed in making a good point.