Akshay Kumar is a man on a mission – to solve India's problems one film at a time. Toilet: Ek Prem Katha had him carry the baton to build toilets for rural India. In his latest outing, he follows the less-travelled path of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a maverick genius who made low-cost sanitary napkins freely available.
This was no mean feat in a country where menstruation is still a taboo and women’s hygiene finds no place in the list of national priorities. It is an inspiring story and deserves to be told evocatively.
Pad Man, helmed by R Balki and engulfed in the Akshay Kumar’s ‘do-gooder’ halo, ends up telling a throbbing real tale in a filmy fashion.
The broad brushstrokes, that Bollywood can't seem to get rid of, pitchforks Pad Man’s central figure Lakshmi in North India – as opposed to his actual Coimbatore abode. The film is set in 2001 in a village in Madhya Pradesh, but it looks like a meticulously constructed set with artificially manoeuvred gobar and keechad. And since it comes after Kumar's Toilet, it steers clear of any "latrine" talk.
"Toilets hain, pads nahi hai – very focussed and blinkered!"
Lakshmi's concern for his wife and his commitment to buying her a sanitary napkin – a resolution that slowly turns into an obsession – is avowedly portrayed. We feel for the man. In fact, we are on his side by the time the opening song comes to an end – he gets flowers for his wife, reprimands her for her self-imposed isolation and tries to talk her out of age-old prejudices.
The wind beneath Pad Man’s wings are some genuinely solid performances. Akshay has had to shed some of his “ heropanti”.
Thanks to the real-life hero Arunachalam's awe-inspiring journey, Kumar has been forced to get his hands dirty and pants soiled. He’s made to completely lose himself in his invention. It only serves to help the storytelling – unlike Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, where Kumar didn’t visit the toilet even once and all morning ablutions were made out to be a bane for women alone. In Pad Man, the treatment has more sincerity and thankfully appears less phoney.
Radhika Apte is pitch perfect as the bewildered wife who is unable to comprehend her husband's obsession with periods. Sonam Kapoor's character Pari shows up well after the interval and helps change the trajectory of Lakshmi's journey. There is definitely a charm about her onscreen presence, but oddly enough, Pari's interactions with Lakshmi make for some of the film’s most exasperating sequences.
Still, we warm up to Pad Man slowly. Yes, it makes the cardinal mistake of turning a real story into a filmy one – replete with a jarring background score, an awkward love triangle that is hurriedly nipped in the bud, and some crowd-pleasing dialogues like "Jo aurton ki suraksha karne mein na kaamiyaab rahe, woh kaisa mard."
But the film has its heart in the right place, with its attempt to normalise periods and the use of sanitary napkins. Here's hoping we win the #PadManChallege in the real world and not just in the digital advertising and film promotion space .
I give 3.5 Quints out of 5
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