Can’t Dream of ‘PadMan’ Without Akshay Kumar: R Balki
Filmmaker R Balki is all set to raise the curtains on his latest film PadMan - based on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the Coimbatore man who revolutionised the manufacture and availability of low-cost hygienic sanitary pads for women in India. I questioned him about turning Arunachalam into Laxmikant Chauhan, working with Akshay Kumar, the deal with Padmaavat and Bollywood’s culture of silence.
What made you change the setting of Arunachalam Muruganantham’s story from Coimbatore to Indore? It’s a biopic, right? It is about a real person who is from a certain place, a certain culture etc but you transplant him into a completely different zone in the film. So, as a storyteller are you being honest to the man you are inspired by to tell the story?
Balki: It is not a biopic, it is an adaption. I will tell you two reasons. Very simple reasons, because, I wanted to be true to what he did. I did not want to restrict it to the language he spoke and to the streets he walked on.
Firstly, it’d be so false if I would have just put up a Hindi speaking guy in Coimbatore or for that matter put an entire Hindi speaking village in Coimbatore.
“Moreover, Akshay Kumar speaking in Tamil even on the side wouldn’t have looked correct. Such issues will completely take away from the cause. Here the journey of the man was for a cause and the cause clearly was affordable menstrual hygiene for women of this country and that I think is far more important than actually looking at, what language is he speaking and how is he speaking.”
I am not calling him Muruganantham in the film, for a very simple reason that I don’t want such issues to come in the way of a topic that already is going to sort of open people’s heads. If I have to reach out to a larger audience, I have to do it in a language and in a setting that a lot of people can identify with. That is why I chose to do this in a setting where people could relate.
So, your main objective was reaching out to a bigger audience?
Balki: No, to get the cause. To put the cause in front. If I make cinematic aberrations like this, I have to be true to the language. If I set a Hindi speaking person in South India and I have a whole village speaking in Hindi that itself will take away everything from what I am trying to say. The reality of the setting because it is a very real issue that we are talking of. The issue to me is more important.
Yes, but you of course wanted to reach to a pan Indian audience rather than just a Tamil audience.
Balki: Of course!
And were you clear about that from the very start or did you debate it in your head?
Balki: Not at all. I didn’t even think of it and funnily even Muruganantham was the first person who said this should be done in Hindi. He said this should be done in Hindi so that it does not only remain restricted to the South. When you are opening such a big topic you don’t want it to be restricted. If it does well there should certainly be remakes of the film in other languages. But,to start with why not target a large audience?
So, you are giving more emphasis to the cause that he is working for rather than the person he is. If you were making a film on PT Usha, you wouldn’t say let me reach a bigger audience and make her a Punjabi.
Balki: Absolutely! To me the life and the job that he did are so interconnected. In his life the task he had achieved is so precious to him. Fundamentally what did he do? His wife wore a cloth instead of a pad. He wanted her to make a pad but couldn’t make a pad. Then he figured out how to make a pad, but the machine was expensive, so he made a machine won accolades became famous. He was a pauper but at the end of it he was still empowering a lot of women. This is a no language story, this is a human story.
When you open up to a bigger audience, the economics of it also becomes key.
Balki: No, I don’t believe in that. I think if you work on a particular language you will work on the economics based on that market. It’s not just about economics, because I am doing a film with Akshay Kumar, who I think is an absolutely right person to play this role. So, how could I do this film in Tamil?
A film like Robot also has to be done in Hindi, Tamil and every other language. For this particular film, the economics is not the most important thing. It is not such an expensive film and recovery won’t be difficult.
“But, what is really important is how many people can you have a conservation with? As many people as possible, because if you see at the north of India the problem there is far worse and that also is a very important reason. In southern India, the customs and the taboos etc are there quite a bit but the issue of menstrual hygiene is phenomenal.”
So, was Akshay Kumar an automatic choice, since Twinkle was producing the film?
Balki: Akshay was not an automatic choice or something, it was actually he and Twinkle who were the people who called me and said that would you like to do a film and I just said, I hesitated, because I am a bit scared about biopics and all - I like to write my own stories. But, of course I had read about this man before. It’s a fascinating life, a thriller. But, for me what really drove me to make this film was that you will never get a chance to do a film on a story that deals with menstrual hygiene or pads ever again and this hasn’t ever been done before. So, I thought it was very very exciting to do.
So, that is how it started and so Akshay asked me, do you want me to play this? He also said that you don’t have to have to have me play and all these things. Funnily enough, I said there is no other way it works for me because when you look at the film, you will know what I am saying. Forget the fact that he is a star, of course it makes the topic a lot more kind of viable, it makes a lot more people want to come and watch the film, but that is just one part of it. Second part of it is he is very much like the person. He is a very basic, simple, no fuss guy, he doesn’t think he is doing anything very great, he doesn’t think anything is a great achievement. He just keeps doing things, like that. So, I found that attitude in him very similar to what this character had, and his body language also is very - very similar.
What were some of the memorable insights that you took from Muruganantham when you collaborated with him?
Balki: Something that Muruga, I call him Muruga, told me about advertising was very fascinating. He said you know Balki where these people are making very big mistake in sanitary pad business. He said, “all these people are saying freedom, jumping, life will improve, this will improve, nothing will improve because where will the pain go, where will the discomfort go. A woman is going through hormonal changes, there are different things happening in her body at that point of time, and she is going to experience that all that will remain. The fundamental purpose of a pad is hygiene. Why is nobody talking of hygiene in the entire advertising business? Millions of dollars are being spent on showing women jumping, laughing, dancing, and working. Of course, they can work but they will be in pain. Don’t show women smiling and laughing and jumping and everything else during periods. It’s so false for people looking at it.” He told me these are facts of life, the things I will never forget.
Personally, while growing up what were the pre-conceived notions that you had about menstruation probably from observing the women in your family?
Balki: I never knew why my mother and sister were sitting out in the courtyard for a few days.
“My sister was more progressive, but my aunts and my mother, when I was very young, they were all sitting out. So I knew for 3 or 5 days in the month I won’t get the food that I want, somebody else has to serve me the food. So those things I knew. I didn’t really quite realise it, till I came into advertising and suddenly the whole thing took a different turn. Oh this is what it is and you start behaving like those pseudo people who kind of make everything cool.”
You know, you want to flash a pad in front of everybody. But that’s not it, you don’t make menstruation cool, you can’t just make something cool. You just have to understand it and make it real rather than making it cool. Cool is a wrong word for this, you know it is a natural thing.
Now with films like PadMan, there is a constant pressure to ensure that it doesn’t get too preachy or people feel like ki yeh gyan dega. So, the entertainment factor has to be always kept in mind. How difficult was it to keep the balance?
Balki: It was very simple because Muruga’s life only is a thriller. There is so much happening in his family, so many people are against him and his wife leaving him but the lighter side to it is I’m going after a pad. There is an obsessive nature about this man. A dialogue in the film which says, “I’m so stubborn about caring for you that sometimes in my stubbornness I forget to care for you”. So, this man is a horse with blinkers in that zone. So, it’s a riveting tale I don’t need to preach at all. Even his talks are damn funny.
I had gone to meet him the first time and we finished talking in his workshop and we had lunch in his house and we were leaving for the airport and he was in his white workshop clothes with all the grease of the machine was in his clothes and hands. So, he also got into the car and I said so where are you going and he said I’m going to an engineering college for a talk so just drop me.
“I just looked at him and said - sir you should wear black in your workshop. He said, no Balki, I should wear only white in the workshop because what is the point in labouring in the workshop if people don’t even know that I’m labouring? - Simple! I mean the man opens his mouth and there is an insight. He is a fascinating man.”
All said and done, 25th January was great window period for you to release PadMan. I’m sure it was not a happy decision to make way for Padmaavat but a necessary one to show solidarity?
Balki: It was a very necessary one. I’ll be very honest, I think the most important reason why we are making this film is that people talk about the topic openly. So, a lot of the result of this film will be in the conversation people have about this subject. The conversation cannot be drowned in Karni Sena conversations saying that kuchh nahi tha iss film mein, why did they ban this film (Padmaavat). PadMan needs pace for a conversation to develop, and we took the decision when they asked us.
I was asked, were we being fools, I said no because number one, theirs is a very talked about film and very big budget film (Padmaavat). They don’t have enough states to release and one is of course as an industry you should always stand by them and give as many screens as possible and second is our film does not necessarily depend on a holiday.
What is a point in opening a topic like this with a superstar if they are not having a conversation about it? It’s pointless. This is a very important conversation and to me, that was a very fundamental driving reason, besides the fact Padmaavat has to had to kind of get the screens. It’s actually doing them good. It will also do us a world of good. So it’s a win-win for both and it was not a loss for the film.
Looking what Padmaavat had to go through as a filmmaker in Bollywood, do you feel that the state should take more active role in safe guarding the interests of a film and its filmmakers by giving them an environment where they can express themselves freely?
Balki: Without a doubt. I just believe what happened with Padmaavat should not happen with any film. It’s a shame that it is happening in a country like this.
But it keeps recurring with every other film. Here’s an industry that is generating so much revenue, so much employment and still the state gives it zero respect or hearing.
Balki: Film is a representative of an expression that we as a country are allowed to have as a right to express ourselves. It’s an expression. A ban or threat to ban a film like this is a sign of a much deeper danger. You can’t stop me from expressing myself. It can spiral into anything tomorrow. There is a progressive film which hurts the regressive, there is a regressive film which hurts the progressive but I have the right to be regressive or to be progressive. You want to watch it, watch it, don’t wanna watch it, don’t watch it. I should have the right to say what I want to say. You cannot say don’t say it. How can your opinion be stronger than the fundamental right to express.
Films are just like the press, it is just the same mode of expression. Art is just another mode of expression. I just feel this combination of might with which we should be fighting, we don’t fight with that might. We all say - no, it should not be, everybody writes a blog, everybody goes on Twitter, says something on Facebook and having expressed myself, my conscious is very clear and everybody goes back to work. That’s what is happening.
But there is a growing culture of silence in the film industry. When you are directly hit as a industry, I find it difficult to understand why only a Shabana Azmi or another such actor comes out to raise a voice against it. There is no united forum which speaks together in one voice to the government to make it accountable.
Balki: Let’s say all bodies, for example, the film industry, lets say you have the Producers’ Union or the Directors Union, you have Ashoke Pandit screaming his head off saying, “how dare the government not stand by us’. We are shouting. Nobody is listening. It’s not about silence. It’s when you are not heard. Where do you go except to the media. If the media doesn’t amplify our words but amplify what is the disease, it becomes a hopeless task. You see nobody is supporting us and we are shouting and nobody is even bothered and it shows what a small industry we are. It’s such a shame that films are being banned by goons, that’s what usually happens in Pakistan or Afghanistan kind of places. To me that’s scary, that’s very scary and I’m sure that we are a little late as a nation in sometimes coming together or realising things, but it won’t go away, we will fight.
Finally, R Balakrishnan or Gauri Shinde, who is the better filmmaker?
Balki: I will never say that, but I know which is the best film amongst all. I really think English Vinglish is the best film that there is and I never look at my films - even if I make a great film, I wouldn’t call myself a great filmmaker. That is a great film, I am not necessarily a great filmmaker. My next film may not be great or my previous films would have not be great but this film is great. For me, English Vinglish is one of the best films that this country - not one of the best, one of the two best films this country has produced. It’s a classic and it is completely mainstream emotion. It may not have done Rs 1000 cr at the box office but it is a Rs 1000 cr film.
(Interview transcribed by Devyani Srivastava)