Akshay Kumar has not just been the box-office saviour time and again but last year, amidst the box-office struggle, we saw a very offbeat film, on open defecation – Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, rise. The film raked over 400 per cent profit at the box office and this year, the National Award-winning actor, along with his wife, Twinkle Khanna, is set to change perceptions in India through their film Padman that addresses the issue of menstrual hygiene.
Adapted from Twinkle’s story, The Sanitary Man of Sacred Land, which was featured in her book, The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, she is also one of the producers of the movie.
However, Akshay says doing yet another “beautiful love story with a message” is not a business decision at all. “Whatever business this movie does, it doesn’t matter. What matters is people start talking and acting upon it. This is not a commercial film like Rowdy Rathore. It has substance. I want parents to watch the film with their daughter/s, want young dating couples to watch it together and want people to talk about menstruation as normally as possible,” said Akshay.
He continues, “I can say from my experience that when I did Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, it was like entering a dangerous zone but the film brought a lot of changes in society. I am already victorious with millions and millions of people talking about Padman on social media, men discussing with other men and asking each other whether they watched the Padman trailer and that it talks about sanitary pads. I am glad they are talking, they should know. When we started making Toilet…, there was 62 per cent open defecation and post release, it is 33 per cent. So I presume change happened in that time span. So, from 82 per cent (percentage of women not using sanitary napkins) if that number goes down by even four to five percent, it will bring a big change,” he added.
Helmed by R Balki, Padman is not a story about a woman but a movie inspired by the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, an illiterate man from Coimbatore who brought about a small revolution for low-income Indian women by inventing a low-cost machine to make sanitary pads. Muruganantham had to wear one himself to test the product and prove his point. But Padman does not aim to shock, said Akshay. “It is chiefly a story of quintessential Indian ingenuity, of the journey of an innovator, and an inventor. Arunachalam is a great man. He used his common sense, nothing else,” said the actor, adding that a lot of care has been taken in the movie to treat menstruation as just any other thing. And Akshay’s biggest fear during the shoot was for mere 30 seconds. “I kept looking at the pink panties and then wore it with the pad in it. I got scared only for those 30 seconds,” he said.
The subject of Padman is considered a taboo and sensitive so what are the elements that he has kept in mind while promoting the film? “Firstly, do not call it a sensitive issue. It is a natural process of a human body. It is time to get rid of those taboos attached to it and it is time to treat the issue maturely. Also, women should not shy away from talking about the issue and certainly should not whisper about it,” he said, while narrating with an expression of shock, that how a young female friend of his whispered into his ears that she saw the Padman trailer.
He also feels that the way festivals like Holi and Diwali are celebrated, people should also “celebrate when a girl meets with her puberty”. “When you celebrate it, the girl who is already going through a physical and hormonal transition, will feel confident and secure. But we exclude our women from the normalcy of life during those five days. So from the first experience, women feel that period is something they should hide. So you know where we should start from,” he added.
Akshay, who went into the interiors during the film’s shoot and spoke to women, said he was shocked to know about their predicament and various taboos attached to it. “Women told me that they used mud, burnt ash and dirty cloth to manage bleeding. It was shocking, it was horrifying. I met some foreigners and they laughed at us wondering we didn’t know what a sanitary pad was. Padman is an important film for our country. Nobody has ever made a film on this issue. Even in documentaries that I saw, sanitary pads are always hidden,” said Akshay.
“I learnt about menstruation only when I was 19-20. I never held a pad in my hand. Nobody in my family asked me to buy sanitary napkin and it’s only in the last two years that I came to know about it in great detail. I have now learnt that menstruating women are considered ritually impure and polluted, and they are often isolated as untouchables. That they can’t touch pickles, enter kitchen, or go to temples, wash their hair. Then, too many girls end up dropping out of school because they don’t have supplies to manage their periods,” he further said.
When asked about his son, Aarav’s impression on the film’s subject, Akshay said that he and his wife practice what they preach. “His mother has explained everything to him. Nothing is hidden in our family. Aarav knows. I am not living a double standard life that I am talking to people about it but I have hidden it from my own son,” he said.
Twinkle, who has often called herself a terrible actress, makes a great producer, said Akshay. “She has good sense and sensibilities of what kind of film she should make. Padman is her idea, her content,” he said.
With the Central Government being slammed for levying 12 per cent GST on sanitary napkin, Akshay said that instead women should get it for free as it is a basic necessity for them. Asked if he wanted to reach out to the government to cut down on GST rate of sanitary napkins, he said, “Why just cut down on GST? I think women should have free access to sanitary napkins. This is their basic necessity. It is about menstrual hygiene and not luxury. It is unfortunate and I am ashamed to say that 82 per cent women in this country have no access to sanitary pads and they are mistreated during those five days of their menstruation period.”
When asked about the possibility of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat clashing with Padman, Akshay said he was totally clueless about the development. “I am clueless what is happening… with clash. I have no idea about it. Even we have heard about it. All we know is Padman is releasing on 25 January.”
Akshay aims to have four releases this year. While three are confirmed — Padman, 2.0 and Gold, he is not yet sure about the fourth one. But he sounded extremely excited about one of his most ambitious projects in collaboration with Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions, Kesari (to release on Holi 2019), which is based on 1897 Battle of Saragarhi and is helmed by Anurag Singh. The mammoth film’s shoot has started and has Akshay portray the role of Havildar Ishar Singh who led the Sikh regiment of the British Indian Army.