Akshay Kumar tearing down small town-set taboos for his wife’s wellbeing is fast-becoming a genre in and of itself.
In an all too similar mould to last year’s Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Pad Man shares many of the same elements and beats of that film. Still, Pad Man has its heart in the right place and is far more watchable (in parts tolerable) than Toilet in that there’s a distinct honesty to its simplicity and a heart in its hamminess which makes much of it surprisingly rewarding. That it’s about twice as long as it needs to be though, certainly has you working harder to hold onto its virtues. It also comes as no surprise that you have to sit through many a cringe and contrivance to appreciate its sweeter, more affecting moments.
Led by director R Balki – last seen helming the all too terrible Ki And Ka – who is in many ways the natural choice to front this film as his distinct style of preachy spoon-feeding, simplistic storytelling and emotional sledgehammering perfectly fits the job description here and entirely aligns with the film’s ambitions. Loosely based on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the film centers on Lakshmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar) who learns of his wife’s hardship every month as a result of the exorbitant cost of sanitary pads and sets out to produce a low cost alternative of his own, much to the uproar of the entire community for whom menstruation is liability to be ashamed of. It is in MBA graduate Pari (Sonam Kapoor) he finds support in helping scale up his operation and address the pitiful figure of the 18% of women in India who use sanitary pads at grave risk to their own health.
While the writing from Balki and Swanand Kirkire is dull, uninspired and repetitive, making very little effort to pad (pun not intended) the messaging with an engaging narrative, it succeeds in addressing the stigma surrounding the use of sanitary pads. If anything, just by warrant of how often they’re spoken about, shown, literally taken apart and put back together and perhaps most of all through one scene which sees one of the country’s leading superstars wearing one himself. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film even leads to many folks buying sanitary pads themselves just to see what all the fuss is about.
That the film is entirely centred on Akshay Kumar as its central driving force is no surprise, but this is also where Pad Man presents with some troubling gender politics. First off you have the obvious male saviour trope where once again we see a central male figure who sets out to solve all the problems of women in society (I suspect the entire purpose of Sonam Kapoor’s character was to address and balance out just this). However more than that, I foresee many a think piece lashing out at how the film demonises women as the central cause of the issue. Early on when Lakshmi first sets out to try and invent various iterations of a usable pad, all the pushback he faces for his ‘shameful behaviour’ is almost exclusively from women, be it his sisters, wife, mother and female members of the wider community. There are no scenes which highlight men berating him for his activities unless they’re part of a larger angry mob. Yes, misogyny is equally rooted in both genders, but the film seems to suggest that the biggest propagators of the taboo of sanitary pad use are women. But then again, one only need watch Ki And Ka (don’t) to know that when it comes to gender issues R Balki has the maturity of a colouring book.
In performances, Akshay Kumar is just the superstar the doctor ordered, bringing his hallmark brand of likeability, naive innocence and stubborn purity to Lakshmi. Conversely, Radhika Apte is surprisingly unremarkable as Lakshmi’s conflicted wife Gayatri and has far less of an impact than one typically sees from the gifted actress. And yet the performance this writer was most looking forward to was Sonam Kapoor’s. Now there’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d say. Pad Man is her first on-screen outing post her breakout, formidable turn in Neerja and I was curious to see what post-Neerja Sonam had to offer. I’m thankful to report then, that barring one unintentionally hilarious live music performance, as Pari, Kapoor is effective and refreshing.
Despite being rife with pacing issues Pad Man works well in its first half as Balki’s film is far better when the stakes are lower and setting more contained. This portion does well to give you a sense of the man’s struggle in trying to make people see reason and the emotional turbulence and lash back that comes with challenging the status quo.
And yet, the curse of the second half is never far behind as post-interval, when Lakshmi’s activities go national and eventually international, we feel Balki’s hold over the narrative significantly slacken. He tries to pack in far too much here between the already established social issue, husband-wife love story, the entrepreneurial journey (easily the most enjoyable track), female empowerment arc and the all too unnecessary love triangle.
In the end, while Pad Man is riddled with the issues most expected from it, I for one say that if we are to be subjected to a barrage of mediocre films year on year, then let there be more like this one. I’m going with 3 stars.