Oscar-Winning Film Shows Desi Women Owning Their Periods
The oscar-winning film set in India celebrates the women from Kathikhera, a village in Hapur, owning their periods.
(This is an updated repost from The Quint’s archives in light of the film’s Oscar win in the Best Documentary (Short Subject) category. The article was originally published on 16 February 2019.)
“Period?”, “Yes.” Peals of laughter from the girls.
The opening scene of Netflix’s new Oscar-winning short documentary, Period. End of a Sentence begins with confusion, giggles and embarrassment.
But there’s no dwelling on the shame and in this 25-minute movie, we leap into the positives - celebrating the women, focusing on them taking charge and owning their periods.
Now That We Have an Oscar, Let’s Go Change the World, Says Producer
The film won an Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards in the Best Documentary (Short Subject) category. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi, and produced by Guneet Monga’s Sikhya Entertainment, the documentary unfurls myths around menstruation.
“I’m not crying because I’m on my period, or anything. I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!” said Zehtabchi in her acceptance speech.
Monga later tweeted, “We won! To every girl on earth, know that you are a goddess.”
Set in a village in Kathikhera, Hapur, near New Delhi, the film explores period stigma and the journeys into dealing with that shame for young girls, women and eventually the entire community.
In the short time frame, we see the evolution from shame to acceptance and even pride as the women talk about and even work around periods, by setting up Pad Man Arunachalam Muruganantham’s period making machine in the village.
The Western Lens
The backstory of the film is pretty unique. It began across the globe, in an Oakland High School in the US, when teacher Melissa Burton and a group of senior class students noticed their sister school in India had girls dropping out to manage their period. They stepped in with The Pad Project (inspired by Muruganantham) that aimed to set up a machine and give the girls access to safe, clean sanitary napkins.
On hearing about the western lens, I was immediately worried about poverty porn.
I was especially wary after knowing the film was set in rural India and seeing films like SlumDog Millionaire almost caricature and exotify the very real problems of economic inequality. Or Lion or The Blind Side, with their heavy white saviour overtones.
The film grounds itself in the reality of rural India but shows us more than a superficial, stereotyped look. It showed women with agency; even when shy they were allowed to be seen on their journey to getting empowered.
There was no wallowing, we saw shame and sisterhood exist together as the girls spoke openlyand grew confident. We saw the change.
We got a sense of the rural landscape through the scenes of the fields, but the atmosphere was created through the intimacies of the women gathering and meeting, all mostly indoors. There were no lingering shots of smiling or sick, poor children or even ones exoticising the crowds and huts.
Women Behind the Scenes Add Nuance
The film is funded, directed and about women. And this is clear in its thoughtful treatment of the subject matter and characters, we can see the importance of women’s voices in telling stories, especially those of women. Periods are portrayed as matter of fact, normal and even positive.
The camera doesn’t titillate or sexulise the women, and they face it head on mostly when they have something to say. Some of the best scenes are ones most women recognise – when we see the women of Kathikhera together, providing a safe space to talk openly and shed some of the stigmas.
The value of the ‘female gaze’ is much spoken about, but seeing female intimacies and support shown in such an obvious way felt exciting.
We don’t often see stories of female collaboration on screen as much as we do in real life.
The feminist treatment of the movie shows when the story and camera don’t linger on the pain, but into the other shades of women’s lives as well. We get into the worlds of their dreams and aspirations, for example, the protagonist Sneha wants to be a cop and the movie stays with her as she talks deeply and passionately about her ambitions.
The film shows us how the advent of the pad machine does transform the girls and we can see a larger cultural shift happening. The women talk of husbands respecting them more with their new-found financial independence.
With independence comes confidence and more open conversations – from both women and men, though the film doesn’t show much interaction between the two.
Although it was fun to see men get curious and start participating.
It was an important moment that humanised the men as well, depicting how all humans are much freer without the stifling shackles of patriarchy holding us back. Without cultural norms shushing us, we all can talk through so much more.
Period Stigma Exists Around the World
Menstruation ignorance is often wrongly associated with the global south - period shame exists everywhere.
It exists in the whispers when you talk about it, calling it a stomach ache and masking the pain of menstrual cramps.
In the shadows when you covertly take your covered pad to and from the bathroom.
Shame exists because there is no vocabulary that makes it normal and comfortable, or we haven’t yet wrapped our tongues around the right words and made them feel at home yet.
It exists in many forms, from not “not being allowed to pray as it wont be heard onyour period” like the girls in the movie say, to period shaming by the US President Trump. In Western countries, political issues like the tampon tax belie the regressive attitudes that persist world over.
Recognising that girl’s world over fight the same fight and taboos exist everywhere will make for a truer, more equitable narrative in films and reality.
Despite my reservations, the film is a sensitive portrayal of the real issues that still plague many women and best of all, it shows women making their way out of the created shame – one pad at a time.
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