Fifty-five rupees a month. Multiply that by three women in the house, and a sole breadwinner, and mechanic, Lakshmikant Chauhan’s (Akshay Kumar) monthly bill for sanitary pads alone would be Rs165. This is too high a sum for his wife Gayatri (Radhika Apte) to accept. She’d rather use her soiled, reusable rag and leave his two college-going sisters to do the same.
During their time-of-the-month, the women of he house are relegated to the home’s balcony. Living in isolation for five days every month is something the women of Maheshwar are accustomed to. The local boys even joke that the girl in the balcony is playing a “test match”. Lakshmikant’s aging mother ensures that the three girls in their house abide by these age-old practices.
Lakshmikant may live in a small town, but when it comes to equal space in the hoe, his attitude is far from old-fashioned. He is encouraging of his younger sisters’ education and is equally appalled by the thought of Gayatri putting herself at risk by using unhygienic methods during her menstrual cycle.
But all Lakshmikant’s efforts at trying to bridge the conversation, and sensitising his wife—or indeed any woman in the community—are shunned. In fact, he is deeply disgraced, but nothing hurts him more deeply than his wife’s shame when Lakshmi’s do-good intentions repeatedly result in humiliation. Gayatri represents everywoman: one who has, like millions of others in India, been raised believing menstruation is dirty and taboo.
Padman is clearly divided into two halves. Pre-interval Lakshmikant faces humiliation and disdain. His wife’s constant flow of tears imploring him to give up this madness of trying to find a low-cost, alternative pad, go in vain. Post-interval, his motivation and resolve even more solid, Lakshmikant puts his head and heart into finding the answer.
At first it seemed R. Balki and Swanand Kirkire’s script was going to lean on delivering a long public service message. Fortunately, the domestic drama, between a traditional wife and her concerned husband, takes a pause and the film hits it stride when it explores and presents how Lakshmikant becomes the inventor of the low-cost sanitary pad.
“Gayatri ke sharam ko sammaan main badalne ja raha hoon main (I am going to convert Gayatri’s shame into pride),” he declares. Speaking to himself is one of the convenient devices employed by the filmmaker to shift the narrative along. Another is songs, and the montages are rather effectively used.
As Lakshmi goes from everyman to Padman, we also meet Pari (Sonam Kapoor), a Delhi MBA student (let’s ignore the notion that for some reason she is also shown to be a concert-level tabla-player) who represents the empowered, educated woman. She forms the viaduct connecting Lakshmikant to his target audience, and also a distraction from his marital troubles.
Kapoor fits the part of the progressive, outspoken woman whose confidence comes in no small part from her relationship with her father. In the scenes with Kumar, she graciously allows space for the actor to take centrestage.
Arunachalam Murugunantham’s true-life story is compelling indeed and Akshay Kumar takes on the role of the “Menstrual Man” with complete dedication. The setting has been changed from Tamil Nadu to Madhya Pradesh as Lakshmikant uses his ingenuity and street-smarts to device a machine that can produce a low cost, “Made in Maheshwar”, pad.
Padman rings far truer than the other Kumar public-service announcement—Toilet: Ek Prem Katha—because Lakshmikant accepts help in getting the job done and the story’s intent seems genuinely to break taboos. It clearly aims to be a conversation starter around periods, not just among husbands and wives, but also men and women in general.
A couple of scenes are irksome, especially one with a professor giving Lakshmi a harsh reality check and Lakshmi’s awkward speech in the United Nations in pigeon English (which he calls “Linglish”). Apte’s character too is rather one-tone—mostly snivelling and submissive.
Just like the film’s promotional strategy, of the pad challenge, the film too steers clear of showing any human blood. The only time you see a blood blot is when Lakshmikant is trying out a contraption designed to simulate menstruation.
Padman is sanitised and sweet, and its message is not just to encourage the use of sanitary pads, but that with the right motivation, imagination and a whole lot of patience you can solve problems with ingenuity