Finally, a mainstream Bollywood movie that addresses menstruation

Over half of us count periods as a part of our lives, and yet it’s still a taboo to talk about them. Most of us still only murmur about ‘that time of month’ and hide our tampax in our pockets on the way to the office lavatory. Attitudes to this natural bodily function remain stuck in the dark ages – tampons and sanitary towels are still categorised as a ‘luxury’ and ‘non-essential’ products by the European Commission, so are consequently taxed at five percent in the UK.

And that’s the best of it. Millions of women around the world, including in the UK, can’t afford sanitary products. In India, the situation is grave – menstruating women are seen as impure, filthy, sick and sometimes cursed. In 2017, a 12-year-old schoolgirl killed herself after being a shamed by a teacher over a period-related blood stain.

Best-selling international author Twinkle Khanna set out to remove the stigma from menstruation by producing the first film to be made about periods, Pad Man. The movie tells the true story of Arunachalam Muruganantham who, after finding out his wife used dirty rags during her period, made her a hygienic version. He went on to launch a simple machine that made cost-effective sanitary towels, which benefitted millions of Indian women. Khanna’s film adaptation stars popular Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor who plays a social activist and musician who helps the titular character with his goal.

We talked to Khanna and Kapoor about their entertaining, yet informative film and what it’ll take for periods to finally be free of stigma.

Padman 1

Pad Man

Twinkle, why was making this film so important to you?

TK: “I learnt of Arunachalam Muruganantham’s story whilst researching the subject of menstrual hygiene for my Times of India column. I was completely enthralled by his journey and I instantly knew that I wanted to play my part in projecting his story to a wider public domain. Here was a real-life tale of a man from a humble background who risked everything for the empowerment of women, overcoming the odds to make ground-breaking strides in the realms of female rights.

‘The fact that menstruation leads to 20 percent of girls dropping out of schools was enough for me to want to make a change. I believe that Pad Man can play its part in starting an important conversation.’

Sonam, why was was it so important to you to be involved in the film?

SK: ‘Pad Man as a film is a very compelling subject and something that I instantly wanted to be a part of, mainly because it’s a true story of an ordinary man with an extraordinary journey. The fact that the subject itself is based around menstruation and making sanitary pads accessible was enough to grab my attention. The statistics in India are quite staggering and once I became fully aware of the situation not just in our country but around the world, I felt obliged to play my part in initiating a change.’

Sonam Kapoor

Instagram: @sonamkapoor

What do you hope to communicate and achieve with the film?

TK: ‘I hope this film can act as the catalyst for meaningful change. Whilst Arunchalam’s work made unprecedented headway by providing low cost sanitary pads for hundreds and thousands of women, there is still an extremely unwarranted stigma attached to the subject. Once we get people talking, we are half way there because you cannot implement any form of legislation if you can’t even speak of the subject. I hope all members of the family watch the film, including the men, because without them change is impossible.

‘Aside from the core message, I hope that people are genuinely entertained by the film, because that is an essential element when it comes to maximizing the impact of the project. Even with my own children, if I give them a sermon, they behave like I’m stuck on mute on the television – my mouth is moving but they can’t hear a thing! But if I make them laugh at something then I know I have their attention. Art which doesn’t capture the viewer’s attention is meaningless.’

The subject of menstruation is still a taboo subject around the world, not just India. Why do you think that is?

SK: ‘I think it’s preconditioned because of what it is in a literal sense, but people need to realize it’s a perfectly natural bodily function. It happens to every woman, yet we live in a misogynistic and patriarchal society whereby anything of this nature which only applies to women and not men is considered odd. That’s the only psychological reason I can come up with. Something Pad Man has the potential to do, which we’re already seeing, is to encourage people to learn about menstrual hygiene and strike up a conversation about periods.

TK: ‘It bewilders me that a simple function of the human body can be so widely condemned and stigmatized. But you have to look to religious scriptures, cultural traditions and mindsets to see the origins of this taboo which is why Pad Man is so revolutionary. You go from not even mentioning the word, to having it plastered all over big screens around the world.’

Twinkle Khanna

Instagram: @twinklerkhanna

What needs to happen for those attitudes to change?

TK: ‘People need to open their minds to different perspectives. We need people from all walks of life, male and female, to educate themselves on menstruation. We need to find a medium whereby children feel comfortable talking about their periods with their mother and father. I also think there is a role for schools to play by educating their students.

SK: ‘There needs to be more discussion around the subject of menstruation to revert it from being positioned as such a sensitive, taboo topic. Women especially need to be comfortable in themselves and everything should be out in the open. Attitudes can only be modified once we establish a happy medium whereby people feel like they can at least mention the word! We need both men and women to unite and work together to destroy an entirely man-made taboo – because we have the power to decide what is stigmatized and what is not.’

What would you tell people who are hesitant about watching the film because of its subject matter?

TK: ‘I would say it’s time to make a change, and change can only be made once we open our minds and mouths. I would say join the movement and play your part in empowering women around the world by affording them the basic right of menstrual hygiene. We owe it to future generations to educate and enlighten them to leave the world in a better state to how we found it.’


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