Direction: R. Balki
Production: Mrs Funnybones Movies, KriArj Entertainment, Cape of Good Films, Hope Productions
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte, Sonam Kapoor
Cinematography: P C Sreeram; Editing: Chandan Arora
Music: Amit Trivedi
Hindi | Biography, Drama, Social | 140 mins | India | 2018
Akshay Kumar cannot be Arunachalam Muruganantham – on whose life is based his latest film ‘Padman’. And R. Balki is not Shyam Benegal. Perhaps that wasn’t the intent either – to be entirely truthful to the subject at hand and to make it as authentic as possible. Perhaps all Mrs Funnybones needed was a concept to build her film on. In which case, she has failed to soak in the concept too! Pun definitely intended!
But beyond starting a conversation in urban areas – if that, what is the film likely to achieve? Unlikely that Akshay Kumar, his director or their film distribution companies will go to all the villages around the entire country meeting 85 per cent of the women who don’t know about menstrual hygiene. The man is done talking about and explaining menstruation for a lifetime – I think. And that’s not his job either, I am reminded.
Yet, if he had shouldered the responsibility of doing a film like this, it was something he should have prepared for while working on the character of Lakshmikant because even acting ‘as a concerned man’ convincingly needs conviction! And the social taboos around the subject of menstruation are very deeply rooted to be taken care of, by a mere Bollywood film. And that is the trouble with it – ‘Padman’ is just another Bollywood film. It is trying very hard to be a portrayal of rural India; it has a superstar diligently trying to be a common man; it has a male director trying to come to grips with a subject as complex as menstrual hygiene. But nothing happens to you as audience. It just doesn’t touch you.
Not like say, Nitesh Tiwari/Aamir Khan’s ‘Dangal’ did; Not like David Attenborough/Ben Kingsley’s ‘Gandhi’ did. Not like Shyam Benegal/Smita Patil’s ‘Bhumika’ did. They all are inspired by real life people - all extraordinary human beings despite starting out ordinary. And they all leave you stunned when you meet them onscreen. The connection is simple. The actor needs to feel the character, get under his skin and re-live him once more. As audience we should be able to either completely forget or remember entirely the original man/woman when he/she is portrayed on screen. Taking Muruganantham out of his setting (Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu) and relocating him to Indore, Madhya Pradesh) takes away his grain. Even with that concession, while watching ‘Padman’, you need to feel Lakshmi / Muruganantham’s angst and his frustration when he is unable to explain his point of view to his wife, mother, sisters, community, village! You need to be convinced of his desperation to make real an ‘idea’ of low cost sanitary towels (STs). It’s not enough to go through the motions. Frustration of not being able to provide enough for his family or having enough money to realise his dream; frustration of being less educated but being trapped in a mind that thinks big; frustration of being ostracized and treated like an outcaste just because he thinks differently – are all real and relatable concerns.
It is not enough to show him borrowing money, doing odd jobs at an academic’s house to educate himself; speaking broken English a.k.a. Muruga at UN and IITs – it is Not enough. Balki’s directorial vision should have gone beyond the prosaic, imagined big - like his real life hero, integrated it into his own being and then translated it onto screen. Nothing of the sort happened.
‘Padman’ becomes a shade relatable only when Radhika Apte as Gayatri or Lakshmi’s wife/guinea pig steps in. Her efforts to keep him away from herself or the shame of a ‘woman’ as she sees it for ‘those five days’ of the month, is the only redeeming feature in a film that needed far more deft and nuanced handling. But Apte cannot hold up the film for it is supposed to belong to the Padman! It is almost like they took Muruganantham’s story, squeezed out his travails and pain and hung the remnants up to dry – much like how Gayatri washes that dirty cloth she uses and hangs on the clothesline!
Sonam Kapoor is redundant. Period. I personally suspect she made the cut for the role of Pari because she may have pulled strings! Why on earth is she even there, is beyond me. They could have done with a better marketing manager to spread the good word about Lakshmi’s efforts and sell his low cost pads - like real Indumathi for real Muruganantham.
All ordinary lives have the potential to be extraordinary. And when it is as special and as life altering as Muruganantham’s life is – it deserved more. It deserved better. Pity it’s an opportunity wasted because its makers thought ordinary and average. And that is why ‘Padman’ will not do as well as it could have done. They reduced a big idea into a small film.