Arunachalam Muruganantham revolutionised the production of affordable sanitary pads. The film Pad Man will depict his journeyArunachalam Muruganantham is a simple man. He doesn’t come from a privileged background. After his father died in a road accident, his mother toiled in the fields as a daily wager to feed her four children. Arunachalam took up jobs as a farm labourer, a welder, a yam dealer to chip in to the family’s income. When he got married to Shanthi, he was possessed with a deep sense of love and protectiveness. One day, the new husband saw his wife doing something rather suspicious. She was scouting for dirty rags on the sly. After much prodding, his shy young wife revealed that she used those pieces of cloth during her menstrual cycles. A shocked Arunachalam asked her why she did not use the sanitary pads available in the market. Pat came the reply. If she paid money for those, there wouldn’t be money to buy milk and vegetables.This conversation set the young man on a mission to impress his wife and find a way of making affordable sanitary pads for women in rural India. The journey was long and arduous. Arunachalam was stubborn and persisted even after his wife, mother, friends and family left him and he was told to leave the village.
His perseverance bore fruit and today, the pad-making machine he made sells for around Rs. 75,000 and is used in 23 states across India. His invention hasn’t just opened a market of sanitary pads and given employment to women, it has also been monumental in spreading menstrual hygiene in rural areas. Arunachalam has given talks at IIT Delhi, IIT Mumbai, IIM Ahmedabad and at Harvard University. His family reconciled with him, the village accepted him back. Now, a biographical film starring leading actors from the industry, is set to hit screens on Feb 9.
Akshay Kumar is playing the lead role – as Arunachalam – in the film Pad man set for release on February 9. The internet is viral with photos of celebrities and common people posing with a sanitary pad. The campaign reinforces the central idea of the film that the taboo revolving around menstruation needs to be wiped off from our society. During the course of his research, Arunachalam discovered to his utter disgust the women in villages, or even in urban areas for want to money, use newspapers, dry leaves and even ash during their cycles. Those few who use cloth don’t often dry them in sunlight because of shame and so there is no proper disinfection. While these details don’t make for an exactly pleasurable reading, remember that these are real grassroots problems that still trouble unprivileged women month after month. A 2011 survey by A C Nielson found that only 12% of women in India use sanitary pads.
A major barrier in spreading hygiene awareness is the taboo associated with menstruation in our cultures. Menstrual exclusion is still prevalent and often enforced. Most communities tend to exclude women out of the family’s daily routine for the period of the cycle. Strict rules are adhered to which leave the women feeling left out and lonely. In Nepal, menstruating women are expected to leave their house and stay by themselves in “menstrual sheds” outside the village. They are susceptible to unfavourable weather conditions, attacks by wild animals and vulnerable to assaults by men in such a situation. Age-old customs, enshrined in religious institutions bolster the taboo and exclusion of women.
In 2015, the issue of menstrual exclusion made national when a priest of Sabarimala temple in Kerala, reportedly talked to the media about a machine to scan if it is the ‘right time’ for a woman to enter the temple. The temple worships a celibate deity and doesn’t allow entry to women in the reproductive age. The open letter by a young woman called Nikita Azad and her Facebook campaign “Happy to Bleed” became viral. The Sabrimala controversy brought the talks of menstrual exclusion on a national platform. Women (mostly Hindu) are forced to follow strict rules for three days that often end up making them feel like outcasts in many families in rural and urban India. The life and struggles of Arunachalam and the recognition of his efforts in India and across the globe has helped change things. In 2016, Arunachalam received the Padma Shri to applaud his work in the field of menstrual hygiene and innovative product design that has made affordable sanitary pad manufacturing and sales possible.
Now, the film directed by the talented R Balki (whose past successes include Cheeni Kum and Paa) takes forward a crucial theme of Akshay Kumar’s body of work. Kumar’s last film was also on a topic pushed under the carpet – need of toilets. The government has made it a priority in its Swaccha Bharat mission, and many cynics wrote off ‘Toilet – Ek Prem Katha’ as an outright propaganda. It takes guts, however, to invest money and energy in a project that is guaranteed to be ridiculed and laughed off at the onset. I can’t think of other actors who could put themselves on the line like Akshay Kumar did by being a part of the film. The appeal of Bollywood still reigns supreme and this mode of story-telling gets a far bigger – and engrossed – audience than other media at least in our country. A film like Pad man, with lead characters that also include the talented Radhika Apte and Sonal Kapoor, may be more successful in facilitating introspection and change than public service advertisements.
First appeared in The Goan Everyday