Padman (Hindi): Upon realizing the extent to which women are affected by their menses, a man sets out to create a sanitary pad machine and to provide inexpensive sanitary pads to the women of rural India. Image Credit: Supplied

Film: Pad Man
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte and Sonam Kapoor
Director: R Balki
Stars: 3.5 out of 5

It’s not often that you walk out of a cinema hall feeling like that oft-derided beauty pageant queen who craves world peace. But Pad Man, featuring Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar as an idealistic health crusader, makes you cheerfully hopeful for a better tomorrow. 

Why can’t everyone be like the endearing activist Arunachalam Muruganatham — also known as India’s Menstrual Man who championed the cause of menstrual hygiene and access to cheap sanitary pads — on whom Pad Man is based on, you may wonder?

While we are warned right from the beginning that there’s a generous helping of fiction in the fact-based film, Pad Man doesn’t have a cynical bone in its spine. It’s stimulating and uplifting without ever being unnecessarily soupy or overtly propaganda-driven.

Kumar, who we fear has lately developed this crusader complex by playing evangelical roles such as the one in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, goes a step further in Pad Man and gives it his all here. He plays a school drop-out and a doting husband who simply wants his wife, Gayathri (Radhika Apte), to stop using dirty rags as pads during her monthly periods and switch to those expensive sanitary towels available at his local pharmacy, with absolute conviction.

Apte and Kumar share a wonderful chemistry and their combined acting prowess makes it easy for the viewers to be transported into their rustic world. The nuggets of humour in the first half, stemming from Kumar’s determination to make the women in his life sanitary-converts, strike home. Director R Balki takes a swipe at social mores and ludicrous superstitions surrounding menstrual hygiene, but couches the distasteful traditions in layers of wry humour and clinical home-truths. It works.

A stand-out scene was Apte’s sticker shock at the cost of sanitary towels that her husband lovingly brings home as a gift and her dubious expression at his obsession with women’s menstruation. Her struggle to accept her noble husband who takes up a sticky cause is wonderfully brought out by Apte.

The first half moves swiftly as we get drawn in Laxmikanth Chauhan’s quest for low-cost sanitary pads and how the villagers around him misunderstand his noble intentions. Kumar is on a sure footing here. While all the characters are believable and well-acted, actress Sonam Kapoor in her role as Pari, the progressive city-bred graduate who joins hands with Chauhan, falters. Her character’s infatuation with Chauhan towards the end ruins the tempo of the film which was chugging along well. 

But that shouldn’t stand in your way of enjoying this film. Director R Balki should take a bow for not making Pad Man weepy or didactic. It isn’t unnecessarily coercive, if you discard Amitabh Bachchan’s cameo as himself as he extols everyone to keep the spirit of innovation alive. 

We knew what they were doing, but we still went with the flow. Perhaps, that is one of Pad Man’s biggest strengths. It’s easy to overlook the film’s flaws because it urges you to look at the bigger picture. Director R Balki also lets the audiences warm up to the underdog superhero in a non-labourious manner. His ordeal is obstacle-ridden, but there’s no cloying agenda weighing this film down.

Kumar’s monologue towards the climax as he talks up his cause at the United Nations in New York puts a smile on your face. It’s Kumar and Apte’s show all the way as they take one for the women’s team. 

Make sure to watch this inspirational film this weekend.