Amit Virmani’s documentary demands attention with its very title. Menstrual Man explores a topic fit enough for prime-time television advertising but not for dinner-table conversation—menstruation management. The 60-minute documentary, which will be screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival, is the story of A. Muruganatham, who is on a mission to improve the hygiene standards of rural women and make sanitary pads affordable to them. The winner of the National Innovation Award in President’s Award in 2009, Muruganatham is a self-deprecating raconteur whose charisma and conviction amply shine through Virmani’s film. Humour is a conversation starter and tension-defusing tool for Muruganatham, and Virmani plays along, using occasionally eyebrow-raising cutaways during his interviews with the social entrepreneur.

For instance, when Muruganatham discusses the premature death of his father, the film-maker inserts shots of a funeral sequence from the Hindi movie Meri Jung, and when the conversation moves to talk of catering to the bottom of the pyramid, graphics depicting the Egyptian pyramids on which statistics are superimposed fill the screen. Virmani also throws in moments from stand-up comedian Aditi Mittal’s routine, in which she pokes fun at sanitary napkin commercials.

The insertions tether the film to India, where cinema has a tremendous influence on attitudes, Virmani argues in an email interview. “The film clips were the obvious choice to me because cinema is a big part of who we are as Indians," he says. “It works on the meta, self-referential level. The graphics were done to highlight the valuable business lessons Muruganantham gives throughout the film. I experimented with Rajasthani puppetry at first, but I wanted something simple, sans frills, like his machines. So I briefed the animator to come up with a style that bridges traditional shadow puppetry with illustrations you might find in a business textbook."

As for Mittal, she is “hilarious, period", he says.

Amit Virmani
Amit Virmani

It helps that Muruganatham’s complete lack of inhibition makes him the perfect character for a documentary. Muruganatham talks about making an artificial uterus using a plastic pouch filled with goat’s blood, getting used pads from women during his trial run and the ostracism he faced from his village during this period. He also hammers home his belief that it is a badge of honour to be “illiterate"—he is a school dropout—since his lack of formal education hasn’t prevented him from his tremendous personal achievement.

“He doesn’t knock education," Virmani says. “He knows it’s the most valuable gift a person can get. His only point is that if he could do so much for society without an education, what’s stopping us from doing more?"

Muruganatham’s drive to defeat the social taboos surrounding menstruation and replace embarrassment with emancipation has seen him shift focus from peddling affordable sanitary pads to selling the machines that make them to community groups across the country. At the time of filming the documentary, he had sold 643 machines, which he makes in a factory in his village near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, across 23 states in India. He follows, in his own words, “the butterfly model of business", in which you “suck the honey from the flower, but cause no harm to the flower". Among the social entrepreneur’s customers is Bunker Roy’s non-governmental organization Barefoot College in Tilonia in Rajasthan. The women here, like several other groups, use Muruganatham’s rudimentary machines to manufacture pads that they sell for as low as 25 for a packet of dozen (the branded products cost much more). Women from villages in various African countries, who regularly attend training workshops at Tilonia, speak of how these machines can be of great help back home. A volunteer, Neeraj Shukla, speaks of being inspired by Muruganatham’s example to spread the message of menstrual hygiene. When Muruganatham talks about “a sanitary pad movement", he doesn’t seem to be exaggerating. “He had this great line, which unfortunately I couldn’t use in the film because I bungled up the sound: ‘People were treating me like I was a leper. But I was already used to that from the start’," Virmani says. “I think that nothing-to-lose attitude was a big reason for his success."

Menstrual Man will be screened at 2pm on 25 October as a part of the Dharamshala International Film Festival at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. Click here for details.

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Dharamshala International Film Festival highlights

The Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), organized by film-maker Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, will run from 24-27 October, and will screen feature films and documentaries. The festival opens at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) with Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox. Among the newer titles are Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (26 October, 10am, TIPA); Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket (26 October, 12.30pm, TIPA); and Ramon Zürcher The Strange Little Cat (26 October, 8.30pm, TIPA). The documentaries include Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade (25 October, 10am, TIPA); Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang (25 October, 3.30pm, TIPA); Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (26 October, 2.30pm, TIPA); and Avijit Mukul Kishore’s To Let The World In, volume 1 and 2 (27 October, 12.15pm, TIPA and 6pm, Club House). The festival is free and open to all.

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