America has Superman, Batman and Spiderman. But India has… Padman. The movie that’s based on the life of Indian entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham (1962), aka menstrual man, will be released in India in February.
Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, who has been in hundreds of Indian movies and is currently one of the ten best-paid actors in the world, plays the leading role. Kumar is to Bollywood what Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Brad Pitt (take your pick) are to Hollywood.
Bollywood’s new blockbuster
Producer Twinkle Khanna – who’s married to Kumar – is also a big name in the Indian film industry. Just as actresses Radhika Apte and Sonam Kapoor, who play the leading female parts and are true Bollywood stars. With this cast and crew, the movie has everything to become a major blockbuster. And that’s remarkable, considering its subject. Because Padman is a movie about a sanitary pad producer. Menstruation isn’t a sexy subject anywhere in the world, but particularly not in India.
The compelling story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, aka Padman, starts when he discovers his wife uses old rags instead of sanitary pads. The reason? Otherwise they wouldn’t have enough money left to buy milk. Shocked, Muruganantham goes into town and buys his wife a pad. He doesn’t only learn about the menstrual taboo (the pad was handed to him as if it were contraband), he also finds out that sanitary products are indeed terribly expensive. His conclusion: ‘Pads should and could be cheaper.’
According to its weight, in India 10g of cotton should cost about a tenth of a cent, whereas a cotton sanitary pad cost 40 times as much. That’s why less than 12% of Indian women can afford to buy these products; in poor rural areas, such as Muruganantham’s village, it’s as little as 2%. The majority of Indian women have no choice but to use old rags, sand, leaves or even ash to manage their menstruation. Unsurprisingly, about 70% of all transmittable diseases in India is caused by poor menstrual hygiene.
The man who wore a sanitary pad
Muruganantham (the real one is pictured here on the left, during his TedEx talk in 2013) decides to develop a machine which produces low cost sanitary pads. However, his invention comes at great personal cost. He’s called a pervert and his friends avoid him. He loses nearly all his family, his money and his position in society. Finding women to test his product turns out to be impossible. His sisters, for example, refuse. Eventually, he decides to test the pads himself, hence his nickname ‘menstrual man’. This already guarantees some hilarious film scenes.
Muruganantham’s life isn’t always a happy one – in the end even his wife, the person he’d started all this research for, left him. ‘So you see God’s sense of humour,’ he said about this in the award-winning documentary Menstrual Man, which was made about his life by Amit Virmani. However, like every good hero movie, also Muruganantham’s story has a happy end. Currently, he’s leading Jayaashree Industries and his low-cost sanitary pad machine is used all over India. He’s not an outcast anymore either; in 2014, Time Magazine placed the social entrepreneur on their list of 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Not the first menstrual man movie
Padman isn’t the first Indian movie in this genre. In 2017, the movie Phullu came out. Although not based on Muruganantham, Phullu also features an Indian man who makes sanitary pads for the women in his village. Its tagline: ‘Jo aurat ka dard nahi samajhta, bhagwan usse mard nahi samajhta.’ (Translation: The man who doesn’t understand the pain of a woman, isn’t considered a man by God).
Menstruation is a gigantic taboo in India. In rural areas it’s still common to ban menstruating women and women who have just given birth from the house because they’re seen as impure. This is also the case in Nepal. In the district of Himachal Pradesh, located in the north of India, a campaign to fight this social stigma that’s attached to menstruation has just been launched. A special task force of health workers will give menstrual education in over 90 remote villages in this area.
Watch the trailer of Padman here.