Published: 20th February 2018
I was hoping for Hollywood, but settled for Bollywood: Pad Man Arunachalam
Arunachalam Muruganantham says that he wasn't keen on a Tamil adaption because it would have only spread the message to a small audience and the issue was a global one
There are few people who have furthered the cause of women's sanitation as much as Arunachalam Muruganantham has. The social entrepreneur from Coimbatore pioneered the low-cost sanitary napkin maker with expertise and support from IIT Madras and has advocated debate on menstruation to such an extent that young women students today do not view it as the taboo it once was. Now that more people know his story, courtesy the Akshay Kumar-starrer Pad Man, we decided to look back on his extraordinary story — both before and after the movie.
When promotions for the film Pad Man started, there were a lot of comments on social media criticising the Tamil film industry for not taking the initiative to make a film on Arunachalam Muruganantham. Considering he is from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, they felt that it would just make a lot of sense to have made it true to its milieu. But guess what? Apparently, they did want to make his story into a motion picture. But Muruganantham chose to go Bollywood and apparently, only because Hollywood didn't seem to be working out at this point in time. "There were filmmakers who approached me from the Tamil, Kannada and Telugu film industries. But I was keen on taking the film to a global audience. I wanted as many people as possible to watch the film so the message can spread far and wide. I was hoping that someone from Hollywood would be interested in making the film because it is a global problem but I thought that that might take over ten years," Muruganantham said.
First cut: Arunachalam and his family with Akshay Kumar, Twinkle Khanna and R Balki on the sets of Pad Man
Therefore, when Twinkle Khanna approached him with the idea of a film he decided to say yes, "I decided if not Hollywood, then Bollywood would be a better-suited option because it caters to a larger audience, at least all of India would be able to see it and will be able to learn the message. I had only two demands, one that it should be a film with a message that is easily accessible to people in far-off villages and the other that the makers should not distort my story. And I wanted the story to get made as soon as possible. Delaying it would mean the message too would take time to get delivered," explained the real Mr Pad Man.
So does he feel that the film has done justice to his story? "Yes, I'm very happy with the film. About 80 percent of the film is completely based on my life. They've also included the part where I myself tried on a pad once, so I'm glad that it is so authentic. To have a such a big hero in a film wear a pad on screen in quite a huge deal, I was sure it would manage to drastically change the mindset of people across the country," he said. India is a country that loves its movies and no one can worship actors like we do but is a film enough to spread a message as 'taboo-ed' as menstruation? "Well, the aim is to create million-dollars worth of employment (with the sanitary napkin-making industry) and creating a country where 100 percent of the women use sanitary napkins," he said.
Spreading Wings: Arunachalam has factories in 2800 villages across the country
What started out as a small cottage-based business in a small village near Coimbatore, is now present in 4800 villages across the country. And several countries across the world, "I started my research in 1994. It was the year that I got married and it was only in 2004 that I could successfully create the machine. It was in those ten years that everybody from my family, including my wife, gave up on me and abandoned me," he recollected. It is said that in those initial years of experimentation with various types of pads, he would ask his family to repeatedly use them and give feedback. later on, he sought the help of women students from a Medical College to use and assess his pads to improve its quality and design.
A decade later, when he started getting recognised and his work became more mainstream, his luck changed. Muruganantham's wife came back to him and they went on to have a daughter who is now in the fourth standard, "My daughter is still too young to understand the film but she has a vague idea." But how is he treated by all the others in his hometown? Like a celebrity, he says. "Now they all tell me 'Oh we knew you were always intelligent' or that they always supported me. Now they're changing their versions. But it's okay. They are all proud of me now," he said with a smile.
Turning to why he has had to campaign so much to begin debates on menstruation and menstrual hygiene, even in places like schools and colleges, "In our country, we don't speak about menstruation. I only came to know about menstruation after I got married and noticed my wife searching for materials to use (as pads). Almost 90 percent of men won't know what a pad is or what menstrual cramps are. Women know everything about men but men barely know anything about a woman and her body. Menstrual hygiene is not just important for women, it is important for fathers, brothers, husbands and friends too. Only then will they be able to understand women and also respect them as equals," he explained.
An Honour: Arunachalam receiving the Padma Shri from Pranab Mukherjee
All said and done, we cannot ignore the fact that women on their periods are still prohibited from engaging in certain kind of work or entering certain places, especially religious ones, "Not entering temples is just one of the hundreds of prohibitions. Superstitions are even worse. Up North, people say things like if a dog happens to bite a used sanitary napkin then the unmarried girl will never get married and somewhere else I heard that if a newly married girl's sanitary pad is thrown out and if it falls in water, then the mother-in-law will die. These superstitions will only go away if we have a one-to-one discussion on the issue," he said.
Turning his attention to the restrictions that used to be strictly enforced in places of worship, he said, "Such rules were made because there was a fear that the blood might leak or stain. But when a woman has a proper pad, she herself will feel comfortable enough to go wherever she likes. So when she has proper hygiene why would she be denied entry to any place?"