Akshay Kumar is known for his man's man action hero image, but lately he's become Bollywood's unlikely onscreen hero for the cause of public health and sanitation.
In last year's Toilet, Akshay Kumar played a man whose marriage begins to unravel because his new wife cannot accept the lack of a toilet in their home. The film's unabashed focus on toilets and what goes in them may seem like crass humor, but it actually broaches the very serious issue of improving sanitary conditions in rural India. In this year's Pad Man, he plays a man whose marriage begins to unravel because of sanitary pads. The film is produced by writer Twinkle Khanna, whose short story "The Sanitary Man of Sacred Land" from The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad is the base for the film.
In India (and many other countries and cultures), there are traditional or religious taboos surrounding menstruation that are followed by many people. Because menstruation is viewed as "impure," women may be "banished" from the home and places of prayer during their period. Earnest and loving husband Lakshmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar) disagrees with the practice of banishment and doesn't like that his wife Gayatri (Radhika Apte) stays in an outdoors annex during her time of the month. What worries him even more, though, is when he realizes that she uses dirty rags for menstruation cloths. Concerned for his wife's health, he buys her a pack of sanitary pads that are outside their usual budget, but she refuses to accept the expensive gift. Ever the handyman problem-solver, Lakshmi begins to experiment with ways to make sanitary pads at a lower cost by layering cotton and cloth.
Though Gayatri does appreciate Lakshmi's concern and try out his failed handmade creations at first, she, as well as Lakshmi's mother and sister, become increasingly upset about his embarrassing interest in a woman's private matters. Once the rest of the village learns of Lakshmi's mad behavior, his marriage falls apart as, in her own words, Gayatri would rather die than live in shame. Lakshmi's desire to help the women in his life would drive them away and leave him isolated from his community. Still, he perseveres onward to gain the scientific and technical knowledge needed to accomplish his mission. That Lakshmi eventually succeeds is no spoiler as this is absolutely one of those inspiring stories about thinkers and inventors who go to admirable lengths to pursue a revolutionary idea that was originally mocked and dismissed by others. The protagonist is modeled on social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham, the real-life welder-turned-"Pad Man" who improved the lives of countless women by introducing low-cost sanitary pads to villages across India.
Directed by R. Balki, who also challenged gender roles in his last film Ki & Ka, Pad Man is far from subtle for that is just not the Bollywood way. The film duly embellishes Lakshmi's eccentricity and efforts for comedy and conflict, and some of his sincere but tone-deaf actions – like secretly offering a pad to a young girl at night and loitering outside a women's college to solicit feedback – would be rightfully considered alarming in the real world. The comical forthrightness with which Pad Man and its hero initially takes on the mission of menstrual hygiene is clumsy and even cringe-inducing at times. But the character's simplicity also effectively highlights how simple and straightforward the cause of women's health should be without the taboos, social stigma and high costs that cause unnecessary dangers. To Lakshmi, being able to provide his wife a sanitary pad is simply a problem to be solved and a part of his responsibility as a husband.
Due to how the character of Lakshmi is written, Akshay Kumar's performance does come across a bit jarring and dense for his age in the beginning. As the character grows and develops along with his mission, Akshay Kumar's presence also becomes more natural and assured. The star is at his charming best when he delivers a big-hearted speech in broken English at the UN in the second half of the film. That smiley speech, in which Lakshmi passionately summarizes his pursuit of making affordable feminine hygiene products as one of both masculine duty and female empowerment, pretty much summarizes the film's tone and message as well.
Pad Man sticks to safe commercial film formulas with its light comedy, melodramatic turns, family values and inspiring success story. This safely constructed commercial film, however, boldly revolves around an important women's health topic that many people may find uncomfortable, embarrassing or even heretical to be discussed so openly onscreen. Pad Man isn't the usual kind of superhero film, but the protagonist and his real-world inspiration are the kind of superhero we could use more of both in movies and in real life.