Bollywood film ‘Pad Man’ aims to shatter taboos about menstruation

Slated as the world’s first feature film about menstruation, the trailblazing Bollywood movie “Pad Man” opens globally Friday with an eye toward breaking taboos around a subject rarely discussed publicly in India.

It tells the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu who revolutionized feminine health care in his country after discovering in 1994 that his wife was forced to use old rags during her period.

“I saw a nasty rag cloth with bloodstains. I wouldn’t even use the cloth to clean my (bi)cycle,” Muruganantham told CNN. “Then, I asked her, ‘Why you are using this unhygienic method?’ I didn’t even know the term ‘sanitary pads’ in those days.”

A newlywed, he bought his wife a pack of sanitary pads as a gift.

“When I handed it over to my wife, I thought, ‘Why I am paying so much for a simple 10 grams of cotton packed in a pad? Why not make an affordable sanitary pad for my wife, Shanthi?'”

Since then, Muruganantham has helped millions of rural Indian women by providing them with affordable sanitary products. In 2014, he was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People.

“Everything started from my wife,” he said. “Now, it has gone global.”

‘You can’t educate people without entertaining’

Muruganantham is played by Akshay Kumar in “Pad Man,” which is directed by Indian filmmaker R. Balki. It’s produced by writer Twinkle Khanna, who came across Muruganantham’s story while researching a column.

The biopic follows Muruganantham, dubbed India’s “menstrual man,” on his quest to design the perfect low-cost sanitary pad and how he came to invent a machine to solve the problem. The movie comes as the families of about 70% of the 355 million menstruating women and girls in India say they cannot afford sanitary products, a 2016 report found.

Khanna hopes “Pad Man” will start a much-needed conversation about women’s health care, she told CNN.

It would help, even if “the mindsets just alter slightly, for example, women have courage and are not embarrassed to tell their families that we have limited budget, so maybe we don’t have to spend so much on milk, but I need sanitary pads instead,” Khanna said. “Or if a young girl goes up to her father and says, ‘I don’t need a fairness cream, I need a sanitary pad.’ That would be a large shift.”

Another small shift, Khanna said, would be if a woman who uses a rag cloth could dry it openly in the sun — a rare practice because of cultural stigma — so the fabric would not harbor fungi or bacteria that breed infection.

“I really believe you can’t educate people without entertaining them,” Khanna said. “There are only that many documentaries that people will want to see. But if you can make them laugh, if you can engage them, then your message seeps in much better.”

It appears a conversation — and a movement — already have begun.

Muruganantham this month started the #PadManChallenge by posting a photo of himself holding a sanitary pad.

The hashtag has gone viral, with Indian film personalities, such as director Karan Johar, also posing with pads.

An ‘artificial uterus’ and a $1,012 machine

Muruganantham faced plenty of challenges as he evolved from welder to unlikely champion of menstrual health, including struggling to find women willing to test his prototypes — let alone understand what he was doing.

“That’s why I decided to wear a sanitary pad myself,” he told CNN. “I made an artificial uterus with a rubber bag filled with animal blood that I tied on my hip with a tube. While walking and cycling, I made a small dosage of blood go onto the sanitary pad. I did this for two to three weeks. I never forget those days — the messy, lousy days.”

Muruganantham was shunned by his community, he said. His wife left him.

At one point, his mother found three dozen used sanitary pads he had collected as part of his research.

“The moment my mother left, the whole village knew the story,” he said. “They thought I was becoming a vampire in the evening, drinking girls’ blood.”

Muruganantham finally found success when he realized ordinary cotton wouldn’t work because it didn’t absorb well. Pinewood cotton was better, but there was still one problem.

“To process pinewood cotton, you need a multimillion-dollar plant,” he said. “So, I spent another 5 1/2 years designing a simple machine with the same raw material. I succeeded in making a world-class sanitary pad with a 65,000-rupee ($1,012) machine.”

A daughter takes up the cause

Muruganantham said he’s refused offers from corporations to market his designs. Instead, he sells his machines to nongovernmental organizations and self-help women’s groups.

“Because the world already has so many millionaires, there is no urgency to create another Bill Gates; we need a social entrepreneur,” he said. “That’s why I am a social entrepreneur, rather than a millionaire.”

Today, Muruganantham’s work and efforts are widely appreciated.

He has reunited with his wife and has a 14-year-old daughter who works alongside him to shatter the stigma of menstruation by speaking to girls who have started their periods and teaching them the importance of sanitary products.

Her goal is to share the message with more than 10,000 girls.

“She has already done this with 3,700 girls,” said Muruganantham with the grin of a proud father.