I already posted my “no spoilers” review, and you might want to read that instead of this one, even if you are familiar with the “real” story, because the movie takes some interesting liberties with it.
Whole Movie in Two Paragraphs:
Akshay is married to Radhike Apte and is upset when she has her first period after marriage and is forced to sleep outside and use a rag to sop up her blood. He buys her a sanitary pad, but she turns it down because it is so expensive. So he attempts to make one for her. She is embarrassed, but agrees to try it. When it doesn’t work, she refuses to try again. Akshay talks to students at a nearby medical college to get them to try, and finally tries to give one of his new pads to the little girl next door who just got her first period. The family is shamed by his behavior and his mother and sisters leave. Radhike stays with him, but leaves after he attempts to test his invention himself using a bladder of goat’s blood and leaks blood in his pants in front of everybody. Akshay is thrown out of the village, Radhike’s family takes her away, he decides to sell his share of the machine shop and go away, not returning until he has succeeded in his quest. INTERVAL
In the second half, Akshay starts by going to a cotton research center and learning that the material in the pad isn’t actually “cotton” but cellulose. To learn more about cellulose, he takes a job as a servant at a professor’s home, and ends up getting the help he needed from the professor’s son who shows him how to use google. The professor himself is discouraging, telling him that he needs a machine that costs millions of dollars to make pads, he should just give up. Instead, Akshay borrows money and starts a machine shop, trying to invent simple versions of the machines needed to make the pad. He succeeds, and coincidentally is stopped on the street by a wealthy tourist in town for a tabla concert who needs a pad (Sonam). After this first meeting, Sonam learns more about him and invites him to Delhi to IIT where her father is a professor to present his invention at an innovation fair. He wins, the prize money will pay his debts and he could make millions by selling his patent. But instead he decides to keep making cheap pads, but no one will take them, they are still ashamed. Just then Sonam shows up, having walked out on her plum job offer to help him. Sonam shows him that the key is for women to talk to women, she can easily sell his pads for him. And eventually the hire other women to be saleswomen, and start selling them machines and helping them set up their own shops. Akshay is invited to speak at the UN with Sonam, and she kisses him just before he goes on stage. But before it can go any further, he gets a call from Radhike, who has gone through her own trial living back in her family home. Akshay says good-bye to Sonam and returns to his village where he is greeted as a hero and Radhike runs to embrace him. Happy Ending.
Now, let me walk this back to the immediate previous version of this story, the version Twinkle wrote in her book. In Twinkle’s version, she begins with the idea of an arranged marriage, two strangers trying to make each other happy. That was why the Akshay character went above and beyond for his wife. And why his wife willingly tried everything he made. But it was a tenuous trust between them, his wife didn’t fully understand him and he didn’t understand her. Eventually, she left him, thinking it would make him change his behavior. But instead it just made him more committed, thinking that if he succeeded he would “win” her back. In the book version, the Akshay character travels to meet a kind and encouraging professor who helps him figure out his project and also helps him change himself as he gains a higher profile. The professor introduces him to an English tutor, a single mother, and he becomes friends with her, she appreciates his strange twists of logic and wisdom. The Akshay character has the same decision moment and chooses to keep his patent and keep the price low, and then discovers on his own that women need to sell to women. He and the English tutor become closer and closer, but then his wife calls him. He chooses to go back with her, but it is implied that she still doesn’t fully understand him. The story ends with him and his daughter and his memories of the English tutor.
(It’s a nice book. I still like Mrs. Funnybones better, but this one isn’t bad)
I am very pleased with what Twinkle did with this story! She ties the challenge of an innovator to the idea of arranged marriage. Of the general idea that Indian society requires you to stay where you are put, not to find your own place and your own people. It’s not about the sanitary pads in particular, but that this is a problem most people don’t want to look at, and looking at it directly and trying to solve it (no matter how messy) is something not everyone can understand. The Akshay character (she doesn’t use the real name in the book, and the movie changes the name again, so I am calling him “Akshay” for simplicity’s sake) is lonely, that is his main problem. And the solution isn’t reaching his goal, but finding his real community, the professor in Delhi and his English tutor friend. But he sacrifices that, aware that he has a responsibility to greater Indian society to accept his wife back and return to his village. It is, in a different way, the same decision he made when he chose not to sell his patent. He is putting the needs of the mass of Indian society above his own personal happiness. The love triangle is totally made up of course, but it is an interesting and meaningful fictionalization of a true story.
But then the movie loses her thread a bit. The idea of both husband and wife struggling to understand each other in the early days of marriage is lost in the usual goofy perfect post-marriage love song.
And then it gets worse with the way the message of healthy period behavior overwhelms the story of the marriage. In Twinkle’s version, the wife has no problem at first in using the homemade supplies. And there is no focus on the traditional segregation of menstruating women. There is even a mention of how the wife was so grateful, they made love that night, cheerfully breaking the biggest menstruation taboo. Husband and wife were united. While in the film, they are divided immediately, Radhike shies away from the idea of doing anything at all outside the box, and while Radhike and Akshay’s mother and sisters are traditional to the point of isolation during menstruation, Akshay doesn’t believe in any of it. This couple seems to have nothing in common, but at the same time the film keeps telling us how in love they are. It’s disconcerting.
Twinkle also had the ability to imply in her story that she was picking and choosing events to describe, which is harder to convey in film. So in the story, we have the image of a series of increasingly constantly embarrassing actions. Whereas in the film we just have a few scenes and no sense of more than those few scenes happening, and therefore Radhike’s decision to leave and the village’s decision to banish Akshay seems terribly abrupt.
There are small changes in the second half, making Akshay’s assistant a little boy instead of the professor to bring in the youth audience, plus the humorous scenes of him doing household chores. And then borrowing money by giving the moneylender a massage. These are all little things that make it “filmi”, give Akshay a chance for some comedy, no big deal. The big change is what is done to Twinkle’s “other woman” concept. And, I think, it is an improvement. Rather than separating Akshay’s girlfriend from the rest of his life, she is a part of it. Sonam replaces the English teacher, a bright promising young female MBA instead of a single mother. But she similarly appreciates Akshay’s humor and personality and attitude towards the world, and in addition she understands and helps him in his quest. Akshay is now set up to choose between a brilliant beautiful young woman who has been his partner and helper and fully understood his quest, and his village wife who never really appreciated or understood him, and who was not part of the last however many years of his life. That is Twinkle’s theme, Twinkle’s concept, and it comes through more or less beautifully. Sonam realizes that she loves him, but loves him for being the kind of man who would never leave his wife. And Akshay realizes that he will always think of Sonam first, but he also has to go back to his village and those he left behind.
Of course, none of this is in the “real” story. I put “real” in quotes because Arunachalam Muruganantham has clearly created a standard version of his story. Which is a good thing! It’s what you have to do when you give a lot of speeches and have a lot of interviews. He has certain points he likes to mention and, I am sure, many things he keeps private (as is his right). In his “real” version, he got married at age 36 and was horrified when he realized his wife was using rags and newspapers during her period. The cost of the pads was a big barrier, so instead he started making his own. At first his wife and sisters were happy to try them, but then got tired of it and refused. Next he tried at a medical college, but realized not all the test subjects were using the pad so it wasn’t a reliable test group. He started collecting used pads from garbage bins and studying them, and going about his day with a rubber bladder in his pants to test his inventions. At some point during the period when there were bloody used pads strewn around the house, his wife left him. In his version, he tends to put this in as kind of a funny irony, not a tragedy. That he started this to help her, and it lead him to a place where she left him. He continues with his funny story, mentioning that he finally got a sample he could use by lying to the international company that he was looking to start up a plant, and got help from IIT Madras, and finally describes how he succeeded and his wife called him, years after leaving him, when she saw him on TV and now they are together and happy again and she has joined his crusade and helps him distribute pads and educate the public. And he concludes by talking about how easy it is to start your own business with his machine and the women who help him, and how important sanitary pads are in terms of helping women.
So, Arunachalam Muruganantham has his own themes he wants to get out there. He draws us in with the personal story, and the memorable extremes he had to go to in his quest, which lead to the understandable decision of his wife to leave him. And then he gives us the beginning of a “scrappy Indian innovation” narrative with the idea of fooling the multinational corporation into sending the sample, and getting help from the bright people at IIT Madras. His wife coming back to him is merely a small comment, to resolve that story and explain how she is now his partner and helper. Which leads into discussing the many other women who work with him, and how important sanitary pads and his invention are to women’s lives in a variety of ways.
(One of the many variations on his real story. Almost identical to the version I got from a lengthy interview, just with a few fewer details)
In this version, the wife is both women from Twinkle’s version. She is the stranger he married and tried to help, who left him. And she is also the partner who joined him and helped his business grow and grow and fully supports his vision. Arunachalam Muruganantham is trying to address two female audiences, the “before” and “after”, the idea that women are naturally reluctant to think about or talk about this issue, but they can free themselves and embrace it and find strength.
I wish Twinkle had been more confident in her ability to tell that story. The village woman who becomes the ambitious strong confident businesswoman that supports her husband. It would have been difficult to do in her book, and it would have been much harder on film, so I can see why she avoided it. You would have needed to create the sensation of a growing madness in Akshay, to imply, or even directly show, all the disgusting details of the process, the digging through trash, the used pads on the floor, the many experiments (not just one) with a bladder of blood, a smelly bladder. It would need to be so disgusting that even a woman with the eventual capability of understanding him, would not understand all of this at the start.
And you would have needed to remove Sonam, and replace her with Radhike reappearing right when Akshay feels he has nothing, when he has won the innovation award but still can’t figure out distribution. Perhaps turn the second half into a romance of them finding their way back to each other, Radhike returning to him at first just because her life with her family is unpleasant, and because she finally understands and appreciates his mission. But then slowly the two of them falling back in love with each other. It would have been a better more unusual movie, I think, but it would also be harder to make.
The worst possible version of this movie doesn’t have Sonam, or a replacement. I said when the trialer first came out that it was “mansplaining menstruation“. It’s still mostly that, but thank goodness for Sonam! She is the one who helps Akshay understand that women want this product, need this product, but are merely unable to say so in public to a man. The key isn’t to “educate” women, but to trust that they already know how to take care of themselves and find the best way to help them do that.
(Cute ad, but don’t make me do Bharat Natyam while on my period! Even with the pad, it HURTS. But that’s a different movie, the brave man who invents the low cost Indian version of Midol.)
UPDATE: One of the commentators linked me to this story, which argues that the film and all of the hype around the menstral pads is illusionary. You can use your own judgement as to whether you believe this article (it does match certain things that bothered me), but it is absolutely worth reading and considering: https://mythrispeaks.wordpress.com/2018/02/09/padman-the-real-story-of-how-he-shot-to-fame-by-selling-shame/