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Yesterday, as I watched Padman, my mind harked back to an incident that took place around three years ago. I am sure that most of us, at some point of time, have been through something like this.

So three years ago, I had a friend of mine staying over. She was a good friend and we had decided to spend some time together because college had almost ended and it would be time to go on our separate ways. It was during this small little stay that I decided I would cook something for her; it seemed like a good idea at that time.

So, as I was running around the kitchen, I opened a small overhead cabinet, took out a few bowls and put them on the table. While I was doing so, I just asked her to close the cabinet, something which I had forgotten to do.

She refused.

I turned around, surprised. It wasn’t a refusal on the basis of “I have my hands full” or something. Just a flat-out refusal, that iss what it was. I watched her stand away from the cabinet like it was radioactive or something. I walked towards it and saw that she was looking at something sitting right below the bowls.

Our cabinet in the kitchen has two storeys. On the top are bowls and stuff, while on the bottom are idols of Ganesh, Krishna, and Lakshmi. I asked her again why she didn’t just close it. My friend looked down, shuffled her feet a bit, hesitating. Then she looked up and told me.

She was on her period.

Honestly, what I gave as a response was a little bit of grumbling about how stupid that sounded and how crazy she was. I was in a hurry and the dal was boiling.

I know, I know. This doesn’t paint the best picture of me. But I’ve never thought of periods as something weird or something to be embarrassed about or as something even remotely dirty.

Family breaking the taboo for me 

It was my mother and later on, my sister who educated me on the various things related to menstruation; and that was simply because I asked what the ads of Whisper and Stayfree were talking about. To me, it was just something that happened to women and not men and that’s it. That’s why when people talked in hushed whispers in deserted rooms about periods, I just didn’t get it. I never understood why someone would laugh at a girl who was going through her cycle or talk about sanitary pads like they were an illicit good.

It is probably this line of thinking that made me oblivious to the fact that there are those to whom things like these are never taught or even mentioned. I never even stopped to think that my friend, being from a highly conservative family, was placing an enormous amount of trust in me when she confided in me. Subconsciously, I probably believed that my indifference was a proper response; definitely better than widening your eyes and screaming “HAWWWWWW!” The fact is, I didn’t really think about it that much because it was something completely normal to me and I totally forgot about it because I was too busy.

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Padman- Breaking the taboo 

You can imagine why Padman reminded me of this incident. The film is about Lakshmikant Chauhan, a man who is something of a mechanic with the mind of an engineer. He watches his wife plagued by the troubles of menstruation and decides to help her out. He buys pads for her, but they’re too expensive. Then, he decides to make them himself, but they don’t work as he wants them to and that ends up ruining her clothes. As he toils to create something that would make her life easy, he finds his own life slipping away. Finally, his wife leaves him and he leaves his village. With time, he slowly learns to make an actual sanitary pad and starts selling it. In a few years, his napkins are a hit in Indian villages due to their low cost and high quality. He becomes renowned country-wide and in the end, his wife and village welcome him back.

As I watched the film and thought about what had happened all those years ago, I couldn’t help but feel happy about this film’s intention.

I have met so many men my age and you’d find it horrifying to know how few of them have the same attitudes towards menstruation as I do. A film that makes this its main theme and revolves around it has been a long time coming and I found myself feeling optimistic. If one person could make a film like this then more could and they probably will. Everyone watches movies and they have an impact in India which precious other modes of art enjoy.

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Where it missed the idea

However, does the film truly succeed in doing what it’s supposed to? It admirably relates the tale of a man who has a revolutionary idea of making pads more accessible. But does that help towards battling the real evils that menstruation brings along with it? No, I am not talking about cramps, ignorant fool, but of the lack of actual awareness and the resulting prejudice that is associated with it. I need to look no further than my friend, who could not approach a clay idol of a god simply because she was on her period. She isn’t stupid or overly religious. It’s the way she’s been raised and it’s probably the way all the women in her family are raised.

Why even bring this up? I am sure that many felt vindicated by the fact that these true problems regarding menstruation were even brought to light, as they should. But none of the aforementioned problems were talked about. None of them were truly dealt with or their impact visualized. The Padman becomes famous for giving women employment in his pad making factory but not once does the film even kindle the flame of a conversation that could set the country ablaze.

Menstrual health given more importance

I can’t vilify the film completely, though. While persecution of women is barely touched upon, there is a lot of attention given to the health aspects of it. Light is shone upon the sorry state of menstrual health in our country, albeit on a very small scale.

Lakshmikant Chauhan pleads for his wife, Gayatri, to stop using dirty rags for fear of infection and there is even a scene wherein a doctor explains to him (and all of us) the risks and potentially fatal consequences of it. Visit this link if you wish to know what I am talking about. And menstruation isn’t always shown as an evil; there is a very heartening sequence with a young woman being celebrated when she has her first period. However, even that teenage girl is forced to sleep on the balcony in the very next scene – in isolation.

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Whether things like the lack of education and the consequent health risks were suitably portrayed or not, their very existence brings to light a bigger problem. It’s a problem we’ve read a lot about and despite all that has been said, it remains the biggest problem. That problem, of course, is our attitude towards women.

Social taboos women have been subjected to

Throughout history, women have been persecuted for a variety of reasons. I could list them all here but there isn’t a point, really. I watched a documentary about 19th century England once, in which the narrator made a simple remark – “She didn’t listen to them and followed none of their beliefs. This led the people to believe that she was insane.”

Think about that for a second. The reasons have changed over the years but the end result remains same. A woman bleeds after every twenty-eight day and instead of it being just a natural bodily function, people actually consider it the work of the devil. These are words that are actually in the film, by the way, in case you don’t believe me.

Lack of education in many families of our country doesn’t help either.

Some people live their entire lives without knowing the reason behind something like this, with blind religious belief and superstition filling the blanks that should be filled with education. Even if one is to try and remove such prejudice, it is too entwined with the other problems of our country. Merely making a dent becomes an impossible task, let alone trying to create any lasting change. It’s not right to blame such people either; they’ve merely adapted and shaped themselves into the life that was given to them. We, privileged ones, never truly understand how lucky we are.

But we know all of this, don’t we? We knew all this before Padman and we shall continue to have this knowledge after the movie is long gone.

Why even talk about something that is known to all of us, then? I wondered the same thing when I actually heard a couple sitting behind me in the theatre and talking about the film during the interval. Here’s a very small snippet of their conversation that I overheard.

“Man: Have you also faced something like this?
Woman: Oh not this bad. Only if there’s pooja or something, I can’t touch the idols.
Man: (silent for a few seconds) that’s really stupid.
Woman: (laughs) Yeah, it is. But who will argue with the entire family?”

I’ve always felt that films with good intentions sometimes find their message buried under those very intentions or in some cases, lost as time passes. Rang De Basanti highlights the idea of revolution but it’s remembered more for its songs and performances. Toilet ended up very close to total propaganda. Pink talked about the meaning of consent but Amitabh Bachchan’s dialogue about the word ‘no’ is now a meme. It’s not the maker’s fault. People are always uncomfortable when shown the mirror and so, as a collective consciousness, many resort to ignoring the point completely. Like a person choosing to drink all the time instead of talking about his or her problems.

Are movies really the solution?

However, the conversation above made me realize that these films aren’t supposed to be the message at all. They are to shine the light on the issue itself and let people start their own conversations. Rang De Basanti laid the seeds to a candlelight march that gave justice to Jessica Lal. Toilet revealed how little people knew about this country; when many couldn’t believe that were actually households without the most basic of amenities. Pink was just the start of the shift in attitude that brought about the #MeToo campaign. And as for Padman, well you’ve already read the conversation of the Man and the Woman.

This brings me to the real question. What can be done?

I have always had a very disputable opinion regarding topics like these but I firmly believe in it. Simply put, I do not believe people’s minds are susceptible to change. The woman in the conversation above realized that she couldn’t argue with people who had now lived most of their lives and too entrenched in their own values and beliefs to change. That’s not always true, of course, but how often are we so lucky? The one avenue that change can come from, however, is all of us. We can be the change we wish to see. There are many people my age who now have sons and daughters of their own. Just like my mother taught me, if I, and others my age, can teach children that menstruation isn’t a bad thing at all then the world would be a better place.

It starts within your family

It sounds simple but is incredibly hard to do. Most of us haven’t been able to talk to our parents about something like this. I count myself lucky but most of my friends, not so much. Despite all of that, we are at an age where our minds can still think beyond all these prejudices and give the next generation a world where things like menstruation aren’t taboo. And while we do that, we can change ourselves as well.

We can be more open with our female friends. We can make it more comfortable for them so that they don’t feel like we do not understand. Women should not feel ashamed in telling us that they are menstruating. We should ask them questions instead of making assumptions or sexist generalizations. And most importantly, we should keep in mind that women do not need help as far as menstruation is concerned. I mean, any person who can handle that does not need any goddamn help, if you ask me.

And for fuck’s sake, we need to stop giving sanitary pads in black polythene bags I mean what is even up with that? I am so glad that Padman, even if it was for comedic effect, brought up this small little detail as well.

Reminder: Let the conversation begin

As I said before, I know these are things that all of us are aware of but sometimes we need a reminder of how far we’ve strayed. Padman is a film that serves as that very reminder. The movie has many flaws of its own, there’s no doubt about that. It isn’t preachy but it isn’t very impactful either. It is admirable in talking about the health risks that come from lack of awareness but it glosses over that as well. Also, it’s really hard to shake off the familiar feeling of a ‘male saviour’ but I really don’t consider myself much of an authority on that. Despite all of this, Padman serves one function so well that it makes it all worth it.

It begins a conversation that needs to happen.

Family and daughter, men and their female friends, sons and their mothers; there are so many places where these conversations need to happen and Padman might be the catalyst that starts the reaction. Whether it does or not, remains a question but I saw a lot of families in the theatre and I cannot help but feel optimistic.

I’d like to end here, with the message that I sent my friend today. I had to say this to her; I felt, it was the least I could do.

“You have always talked about your belief in God and I admire you for having faith even in the worst that life has thrown at you. So, I’d like to remind you that if you believe God created you then in all His wisdom, He created you the way you are, menstruation and everything. If God has created this aspect of you as well, then why would he consider you dirty and consider it sin if you touched an idol of him? He shouldn’t and I am sure He doesn’t. Nobody should, least of all you. Remember that the next time someone tells you that can’t pray to Him or touch Him. Remember that God doesn’t care about that and in time, hopefully, nobody will.”

I should have said this on that day, all those years ago, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time. That’s a fault of my own, I guess. And something that I need to better within myself. I am not the only one who needs to do that, however, and I hope that this film serves as a reminder to all those who do.

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