Long before Mrs Funnybones found out about the real Padman Arunachalam Muruganantham – the man himself, who has invented the machine for making low cost sanitary pads – had already been featured in a series of films, including a Bhojpuri feature ‘Phullu’ directed by Abhishek Saxena, starring Sharib Hashmi and Jyoti Sethi. A couple of award winning documentaries have also had Muruganantham as the hero of their films. The first being Amit Virmani’s ‘Menstrual Man’ (2013) which was voted amongst the Top 10 films for the Netflix Audience Award and also made it to the IDFA Audience Award; And the other being ‘Pad Piper’ by Akanksha Sood Singh which went on to win the National Award for Best Film on Science and Technology in 2014.
Muruganantham and his wife Shanthi, with their numerous accolades and awards*
While Virmani thought Muruganantham’s story had all the elements, “for a Bollywood film” Singh’s venture is somber and funny by turns. ‘Pad Piper’ takes you on the life altering journey of the Coimbatore-based school dropout Muruganantham who through trial and error over 6-8 years finally managed to invent a machine which has brought about a silent revolution in the Indian hinterland. His machines have helped scores of women across rural India by giving them livelihoods and by helping them live healthier lives. Says Muruganantham in Virmani’s film: “It is shameful for me… that to make sanitary pads for my wife and my sisters an American (company) was needed. Finally, India needed a school dropout to make a sanitary pad for Indian women.”
Today, he is exporting his machines to more than 17 countries, including USA and Japan. Muruganantham was awarded the Padma Shri in 2016 and employs over 25000 women who have learned to use his invention. According to an Al Jazeera report there are over 877 brands which are using some 1300 machines in over 27 Indian states. Muruganantham calls it the Silent Feet Revolution.
Pad Piper Muruganantham makes a presentation to Japanese clients*
So, what is it about Muruganantham that has set so many imaginations on fire? In an interview, Akanksha Sood Singh shares her thoughts on the man and the making of Pad Piper (PP).
“It started with a newspaper article. It was a very interesting article and I was at that time pitching ideas for Asian Pitch Fund. When I pitched them this idea, they liked it, picked it up and shortlisted it. It was then that I made contact with Muruganantham. I picked up the phone and was talking to this man and was drawn to him instantly. He was a complete simpleton and the way he speaks is so funny. So, he was very welcoming and said, ‘we can go on talking like this – come and meet me’. So I went over, we spent time with him, with his family, his wife, travelled with him to far flung villages where he was training with women.. beyond Coimbatore and to some interior villages, just to get a sense of what he was doing. It was very enamoring, I must confess. I was in awe of him at that time. And I realised what he was doing was extremely important and was going to change the face of menstrual hygiene and change the way we perceive menstruation as of now in the Indian context. At that time, only one film had been made on him – that was ‘Menstrual Man’ by Amit Virmani and I think Amit was in post production when I started filming for PP. I believe the way Amit has dealt with his film is very, very nice. He has used interesting things like shadow puppetry and animation, though I haven’t seen it.
Your film spans countries and several locations in India. How long did you take to make it - from pitch to release.
A good one and a half years. Of that, it took one year to film Muruganantham alone. We went to Andaman and Nicobar islands, countless villages in the interiors in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Haryana. We filmed as and when he was going to a lot of different locations especially the ones we thought were going to add a lot of diversity to the subject. We also travelled to Japan.
Soon after the film got commissioned Muruganantham happened to be going there and since the first broadcast was to happen on NHK Japan, we thought it would make a great connect with the Japanese audience. We thought it would be a good idea to begin the film with that. He was travelling every two-three weeks and going everywhere – for talks, seminars or to set up a machine somewhere... so we picked up locations which would kind of showcase what he was trying to do.
Low Cost Sanitary Pads manufactured at Muruganantham’s workshop*
What were the challenges you faced?
It was very challenging – not with Muruganantham but with women in rural India. Just trying to make them talk about this issue was difficult. I remember the first six months, every time we went to a place even the women who were training under him to make the sanitary pads, they were hesitant in speaking to the camera. One thing is about being camera shy which is understandable because all these women had never seen a camera before but the other part – you know answering the questions I was asking, was a taboo. It was a cultural leap… a taboo leap which these women had to take, to tell me about what they went through when they had their period, what they used and why?
“I was very clear that I did not want to talk to women in urban areas, since the real problem lies with women in rural areas in the heartland, where like Muruganantham always stresses … ‘the awareness is missing’. Even the sanitary pad ads on television – they don’t really tell you what it does. Maybe in the next few years girls may have a different perception of what it does but when I was growing up or even till 2 years back, the ads were very indirect. A lot of women I met were my age or just growing up. So there was no awareness. Television was not even there in half these places. It was while interacting with him and women like Indumathi (one of the ladies in the film who makes and sells these pads and whom Akanksha interviewed) who travels a lot talking about menstrual hygiene in rural India (that a picture emerged); and in places like Haryana – again somewhere in the interiors, women don’t even wear underwear – forget the concept of pads.
“So, there were lots of challenges – like I remember I wanted to go and film in a village called Dodda Gollarahatti in Karnataka, where women are kept isolated in a hut on the outskirts of the village. It’s a one room setup. There is a wood stove, some utensils and she is kept there all alone for those 5 days. If a group of them, say 10, are menstruating, they will be together but if its just one girl – irrespective of what age she is, she is kept isolated for 5 days. It’s unhygienic but she should not be seen, she should not touch any man - nothing. They were okay with the idea of me filming when I spoke to them on the phone, but when I landed there I was thrown out of that place. They just refused and said, ‘you can’t do this.’
Indumathi talks to women in remote villages about menstrual hygiene and health*
Speaking of awareness, what has been the strategy behind spreading the word about this issue and these machines?
When I was filming, I realised that Muruganantham was very picky and choosy about who he sold this machine to. He had women from urban areas - from Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi and other places who wanted to set up the machines. But he refused. He was like, ‘women in urban areas think this is just business potential but I want to sell my machine to women in really remote areas’. So, that’s why his strategy of getting in touch with self-help groups and NGOs in remote areas of India. It is very easy for them to get a bank loan, they are very serious about something like this and apart from it becoming a source of livelihood, also takes the message forward. ‘Women’, he was clear, ‘in urban India are already aware of the concept of the sanitary pad. They may not talk about it still but women in rural India – the alternatives that they use for absorbing blood when menstruating are really unhealthy and unhygienic methods’.
“His marketing happened with Indumathi – that woman is such a huge bundle of enthusiasm, she convinced this man, it took her months but she did it. And she was the one who came up with this idea of taking bags along, meeting women and creating awareness among them. She is using it as a marketing campaign but it’s really helping. I remember we used to just drive in the car and she would just see some women by the roadside and she would just stop the car and start talking to them in a local dialect, start explaining about hygiene and all, and it really helped.
Also it’s not just women but the men also who are uncomfortable talking about this issue, as Pad Piper highlights. Some are not even aware of what the women in the house go through or don’t know how to address this issue at all.
See, its conditioning. Even when we were growing up our mothers never spoke about it, we were not told anything. A lot of it revolved around superstition and restrictions. Like I remember there were things like ‘you can’t go to the temple’, ‘you can’t touch pickles’ and so on. But the science behind it was never told. Even the education system was very technical. It did not go beyond what was prescribed in the textbooks and because your parents don’t talk about it, you don’t see anyone in your family talk about it – the conditioning continues. I know I will be a different parent to my daughter and tell her stuff but it didn’t happen before. So it is largely a conditioning for both men and women. It is perceived as something unhygienic, dirty and bad even now.
More than unhygienic it’s the secrecy around it all… don’t you think?
As we were filming, we realised that these machines are going abroad and one of the machines was going to America and we decided to expand a bit and check out what women abroad think so we did this little piece in LA where we interviewed a lot of women and that is when we realised that it’s not a third world problem only. This exists across the globe. Growing up has been like this the world over.
Yes, Twinkle Khanna on a recent BBC interview was saying much the same thing. For when Twinkle started talking about India and this issue, the anchor responded by saying, ‘we have this problem in UK too.’ So it has nothing to do with literacy, education, being an emancipated society at all?
Yes, it has got nothing to do with education. It is one of those subjects which transcends every possible definition of being educated and aware.
Then it’s rather remarkable that you got women like Indumathi and Jyoti and others to talk about it and to share their problems with you.
One of things that made it easy was that I was a woman. I spent a lot of time talking to these people before I started the camera. It was important for them to understand the thought behind the film. It’s very easy to land up in a place, thrust a camera in someone’s face and say ‘So you’re working in this factory, doing this job and now I am going to film you’. But I didn’t want to do that. We spent a lot of time with the characters. I spent six-seven days with Indu in Tamil Nadu, then with Jyoti in the Andamans. In Jyoti’s case, the interview was done separately from the house because her brothers were at home and she didn’t want to be interviewed in front of the family, knowing the kind of questions that would be asked. I would have liked to do it with everyone around but she was like ‘No, let’s go outside in the garden and then do it’. So it’s about them trusting you. And once I finished this film, the first thing I did was to show it to everybody involved because their consent is important.
In documentary cinema particularly, the filmmakers often face a dilemma – whether to retain it all as it is or to stage some things to suit the subject at hand. Did you have to do something like this too, to highlight the issue more starkly?
I reconstructed two episodes. One was Muruganantham wearing the pad himself and moving around. The other was when he first started making the sanitary pad. I did so, because the real incidents had happened years back. There were other dilemmas like - this is a subject that raises more questions than answers. I could get into details of gender bias and illiteracy and poverty. But I didn’t want to judge. I wanted to stay with the subject. I wanted to show people’s perception. That’s why there are so many vox pops. And I asked a lot of people the same question and got a lot of different reactions, everyone’s experiences being different. It speaks volumes. The dilemma was to decide how much should I keep finally.
Coming to R. Balki/Akshay Kumar’s ‘Padman’ which released yesterday. It seems to have diluted the whole issue by turning this human interest story into a completely commercial venture. How much does Muruganantham’s achievement get diluted, in your opinion? Or do you think subjects like these lend themselves only to documentaries?
One of the biggest things is that when something finds its way to mainstream, one of the main things is, it gets the eyeballs. They reach out to a far, far wider audience than a documentary film. The kind of impact and social message that can be put into a commercial film can have a far reaching impact than a documentary will have. I have tried with my film to bring about a certain kind of change and I wasn’t very successful. This is also because people didn’t see ‘Pad Piper’ at that time. If the subject is a human interest one and its about a social message, if a documentary cannot do it, a Bollywood film can. This is provided it is handled well. But at the same time, it has to be entertaining also so that people get involved. It has to touch their lives in some way and you should be able to get the message across. What I haven’t been able to do, I am hoping ‘Padman’ will be able to.
Akshay Kumar in a still from the film Pad Man
To some extent, there are elements that can dilute the subject but it depends a lot on the producer-director and what they want to do with it. Are they serious about passing on the message? A lot depends on that. It’s difficult to say what works with the audience and what doesn’t. Still, the landscape of the commercial film is changing so drastically in the country.
Overall, Muruganantham is great. What he has started out to do it will take a lifetime, probably a couple of generations - for thinking to change. It will be great if we at least start talking about the issue. It may have been his wife who triggered the thought but at the end of the day, it took a man to do it. It takes a man to do something like this!”
But the last word really belongs to the visionary himself. Here is what Muruganantham has to say: “Because I am uneducated I keep going. If you are educated what will happen? You’d stop.” I surely hope not.
*Pics Courtesy: Akanksha Sood Singh