A friend, who often tips me off on stories, sent me a message asking why I don't write about menstrual hygiene among rural women. I told her that it’s difficult for a male journalist to write about women issues in India.
It just happened that a couple of days later, I watched the story of a man who not only studied menstrual hygiene but also provided the right solution of biodegradable pads. ‘The Pad Piper’ directed by Akanksha Sood Singh, brings to focus the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who claims to be the first man in the world to wear a sanitary pad in order to understand what it’s like to be a woman during her periods.
With a good share of light moments, the film deals with taboos around menstruation by recreating Murugan's struggle. The very first sequence of our man travelling in a Tokyo subway to meet officials of a company catches the viewer’s attention. The filmmaker traces back his journey, from a man who does not want his wife to use rags and newspapers during menses, to becoming a social entrepreneur who not only develops a machine to produce low-cost hygienic pads, but also turns into an economic opportunity for women self-help groups which can own the technology and sell the products with their own brand names in villages or even barter them for vegetables. .
More than the sanitary pads and social change, the film focuses on the man who was determined to give a better life to all poor women who can’t afford a high cost pad. With no background in this work, he had a tough time cracking the composition of a pad which took him two years. The absorbent material is biodegradable tree cellulose and not chemicals as is the case with sanitary pads in the market today.
The film also brings to fore the irony of our social set up. While reverence for women as goddesses motivated Murugan to pursue his goal, taboos around menses had even medical students avoiding him. He was called a pervert for collecting used pads. But more than that, it was the social ridicule Murugan faced that tested his character which remained resolute even as his wife left him.
As the camera follows him in present times from his home town Coimbatore to Port Blair, Tokyo et al, we get a good idea of a man who did not shy away from testing the pads he made by wearing them with an inflated ball full of animal blood acting as an artificial uterus.
Views of men and women from various walks of life interspersed in the narrative, lend a good context to the whole issue of menses. There are some clever references to TV commercials vying urban women by focusing on comfort rather than hygiene, brand names reinforcing the ‘whispers’ around menses, and gender roles played even in front of camera when a girl stops talking when her brother is passing by.
What it misses on is an important fact that the pads are designed to cater to varying flows on different days of the period. It also does not focus much on the completely biodegradable quality of these pads, which is a huge advantage in face of the 9,000 tonnes of menstrual waste, mostly plastic, being generated every month in India.
What make this film tick are the personal stories of the people. Whether it’s Murugan or the group of women who decide to start a small business of making and selling sanitary pads, they all come together with emotional stories making the viewer root for them. These voices are also a welcome relief from government and NGO representatives who are a staple in such documentaries.
Whether or not the Pad Piper has lured away taboos, he's lured me into writing about menstrual hygiene!
This film was screened at the CMS Vatavaran Film Festival 2015
Watch the trailer