Monday 23 May 2022

On demand: "Pad Man"

Pad Man is two things at once: a social-issue masala movie about women's health - more specifically, the fight to provide affordable sanitary pads to those in rural areas - and a vehicle for Akshay Kumar in his new guise of Mr. Uxorious, The Housewives' Choice. Here, the star is playing a Hindified fictionalisation of the real-life Tamil entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham, going by the name Lakshmikant Chauhan: a welder and tinkerer who, upon learning that his bride Gayatri (Radhika Apte) uses an old washcloth to soak up her monthlies (and the high price of sanitary products), sets out to tailor his own Lil-Lets. It's a dreamer narrative - one man going his own way in the face of widespread indifference and sometimes outright opposition - albeit predicated on a wholly humdrum, matter-of-fact, domestic dream; an account of an especially haphazard but ultimately successful R&D process - or as Lakshmikant dubs it, "T&F: Try and Fail". At least he's trying, which sets him apart from most husbands in his neck of the woods, and even his failures will carry him somewhere. I take some of the criticism about a film on feminine hygiene being so centred on a man (yes, this is based on a true story; yes, there were doubtless other stories that could have been told). But I also see the value in a film in which an established Bollywood action hero schools Indian men - men everywhere, indeed - to become more actively engaged in their partners' welfare. To quote Lakshmikant himself: "If you can't protect a woman, how can you call yourself a man?"

The one danger, from a dramatic point of view, is that Pad Man makes its hero such a sweetheart you can't ever imagine a jolly, 12A-rated crowdpleaser such as this ever letting him down with an unhappy ending. Good news, then: the director is the experienced R. Balki, who not only knows a feelgood story when he sees one, but also how to put one together. (By point of immediate contrast, check out last year's straight-to-VOD Helmet, a film conceived in Pad Man's image by mere kids, which tried to initiate a similar conversation about condom use but quickly fell apart, sniggering as it went.) Pad Man is that rare modern Hindi film that gets more satisfying as it goes along, which is probably one reason it became the runaway hit it did: you come away from it beaming, and keen to impress its virtues on others. Its depiction of a superstitious rural community - a place with one foot stuck firmly and stubbornly in the past - is irreverent but largely fond, never as mocking or condescending as it could have been. (Balki senses the audience he really has to reach.) Upfront, meanwhile, we get another demonstration of Bollywood star power, and Kumar proves rocksolid in a role that depends on his being dogged, humble, in many ways unheroic. A more subversively minded film might have made a big joke or talking point out of the scene where Lakshmikant dons pink panties to test the efficiency of his prototype; Balki is insistent that it comes with the job, just a pad man doing what a pad man has to do. Kumar gets one obvious "hero" moment - a long third-act speech at the United Nations - and he's so charming with his faltering English that you wonder why he's wasted the past two decades on substandard scripts and directors.

On either side of him, two women, representing two different Indias. There's a funny supporting role for Sonam Kapoor as the altogether elegant guinea pig for the Pad Man's prototype - funny, because pre-eminent brand ambassador Kapoor initially seems both amused and bemused at being called upon to promote a homemade sanitary towel. Her appearance in the second half is the point at which Pad Man actively starts pushing back against some of the anticipated criticism: if it still feels like a sop to the leading man's ego that her worldly character should eventually fall for this schlub, equally she has the best idea of what to do with the Pad Man's technology. (And we concede that invention is nothing without application.) Back on the homefront, Apte - typically cast as the modern metropolitan woman - is effectively yokelling down, swapping pantsuits for saris as a traditionalist who appears genuinely aggrieved and ashamed by her husband's interventions in the status quo. It's in the domestic scenes that Pad Man starts to up its stakes, in a way that marks it as a very savvy evening's entertainment: we're set to wondering whether this relationship can survive one man's determination to breach a taboo subject. Given the menstrual blood the New Extreme Cinema splashed around the screen at the turn of the century - thinking of you, Anatomy of Hell - it seems peculiar that some are still having to tiptoe around the subject two decades on. Yet that may just be where some squeamishly conservative part of India is still at this far into the 21st century; in that context, a gently radical, inherently likable proposition such as Pad Man - a film looking to nudge or nuzzle the needle in the right direction - has to be worth something.

Pad Man is available to stream via Netflix.

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