His life is being played out in a Bollywood film by macho A-lister Akshay Kumar, but the actual real-life hero Arunachalam Muruganantham who sparked a revolution in India by making low-cost sanitary pads using his own innovative machine, describes his life as a ‘pendulum’.
“On one end, I feel like a celebrity with the film releasing; and on another end, I feel like an ordinary man who has a long way to go… On one end, my life story has been made into a Bollywood film; on the other hand, I still go to the remotest villages where people are still using dry leaves, ashes and saw dust powder during menstruation,” said Muruganatham in an interview with Gulf News tabloid! before the release of Bollywood film man, Pad Man, out in the UAE cinemas on February 8.
Before this interview, the activist from Tamil Nadu had just been to a Khattima, a small town near the India-Nepal border, where awareness about menstrual hygiene was almost non-existent. Dirty rag cloths — that could trigger fatal reproductive and urinary tract infections — to stem the blood flow and a stigma around the touchy topic are still a reality for the women there. They are yet to hear about the new nifty Bollywood film, Pad Man.
“When I work in the remotest villages, it reminds me of who I am... India is not built on 14 metros and 100 cities. It’s made up of 600,000 villages… Maybe this movie will help in creating awareness for my cause and make it a bigger and burning issue,” said Muruganatham.
His crusade towards menstrual hygiene was triggered when he spotted his wife, Shanthi, using dirty rag cloths surreptitiously during her menstrual cycle.
“Everything started with my wife, but one fine day I understood that my sister is not using sanitary pads, and that my town, my village and the whole country doesn’t have access to them... Many countries are willing to send rockets into Mars, Saturn and other planets without empowering women. You can send women to the Moon or Mars later, first provide sanitary pads to them,” said Muruganatham in halting English.
Two shocking statistics roll out of this 55-year-old man, who was named Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Men in 2014: 90 per cent of Indian women don’t use sanitary pads and that more than 20 per cent of Indian girls drop out of school when they reach puberty as they tend to skip school for six days every month.
According to reports, in urban India 43 per cent to 88 per cent of girls use reusable cloth during menstruation, yet they are often washed without soap or clean water and the Indian ministry of health estimates that 70 per cent of women are at risk of severe infection because of unclean period practices.
“The biggest challenge was to make the world understand that a machine with our own indigenous technology which creates affordable pads are a must… People kept asking why is this foolish person trying to make a big machine when big corporations already had one?”
Foolish was one of the kinder names that he has been called since he began his quest for creating cheap sanitary towels.
“The whole society was against me... When the village people saw me collect used pads, they thought I had become a vampire who drank women’s blood. They wanted to chain me to a holy tree and hang me upside down to take the vampire out. My wife left me, my mom left me thinking that I had become a psycho after watching me inspect sanitary pads. Nobody understood me.”
But the South Indian native took their departure from his life as a constructive sign.
“I felt freedom because I was able to focus on my cause,” he said.
Testing his pad prototype by wearing it himself and attaching the makeshift pad to a football bladder filled with goat’s blood were some of his creative experiments.
“I wanted that part to be in the first half of the film Pad Man... Once they took the rights from me, I knew that this will be the world’s first Bollywood film about periods. No hero has ever spoken about periods in his films. It’s infotainment.”
According to him, the activist whose affordable pads have now reached 600 districts in India was present on the sets of Pad Man overlooking the scenes that were being filmed by director R Balki.
“The team is very much interested in making an original, accurate movie and Kumar is a very brave man to take up this role.”
Muruganantham claims it was a one-time honorary payment received for Pad Man, but it isn’t the money but the possibility that the film will bolster his crusade that made him agree to the ambitious social drama, backed by writer-turned-producer Twinkle Khanna.
“I had long sittings for several months with the hero Akshay Kumar... I almost became a gynecologist to Akshay Kumar as I explained to him about periods, the methods women used to manage it... I never discussed in so much detail even with my own wife,” said Murugunatham with a laugh.
If you are wondering, Murugantham’s wife and mother returned to his life after a few years when his machine and his cause were made public.
Was there a no-go area when he agreed to become the subject of a Bollywood film?
“My life is a brave one. I didn’t put any restrictions. I have gone to great lengths to build a machine that creates affordable pads and all I want is for this film to make people talk openly about menstruation. My plea is that don’t wait for a girl to become a woman to empower them. Empower a girl’s life by giving sanitary pads to them. With pads, we give them wings.”
Don’t miss it
Pad Man releases in the UAE on February 8.
“In my childhood, I ran around in chappals. I studied only till 9th standard. But I gave up studying when my father died in a road accident. I had to support my mother, so I took up a welding job and that was my childhood,” said Murugunatham when asked about his early life before he became India’s Menstruation Man, a title he earned because of his health crusade.