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R. Balki gets real with ‘PadMan’

R. Balki on working with Twinkle Khanna and Akshay Kumar, and the challenges of making a film about a real-life character after previously avoiding biopics

(From left) Sonam Kapoor, R. Balki and Akshay Kumar on the sets of ‘PadMan’.
(From left) Sonam Kapoor, R. Balki and Akshay Kumar on the sets of ‘PadMan’.

Which came first: Twinkle Khanna’s The Sanitary Man From A Sacred Land (from her collection of short stories) or R. Balki’s script, the basis for the forthcoming feature film PadMan? It turns out that both were being written simultaneously, without collaboration or symbiosis. The commonality, of course, is that both Khanna’s short story and Balki’s film are retellings of the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the Coimbatore-based creator of the low-cost sanitary pad-making machine. Muruganantham has been the subject of documentary features such as Amit Virmani’s Menstrual Man (2013), but he didn’t part with the film rights to his life story till he met Khanna and Balki. “For one-and-a-half years I didn’t answer them. I first met Twinkle in London and said I would agree only after I met Balki and could explain myself to him. And after seeing Akshay (Kumar) in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Airlift and OMG: Oh My God!, I had the confidence that he will do a good job playing me," says Muruganantham on the phone. Based on a screenplay by Balki and Swanand Kirkire, PadMan is co-produced by Khanna and features actors Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte and Sonam Kapoor.

For Balki, who was approached by Khanna and Kumar to develop this story into a film, adapting a real-life story was a departure. The director of films such as Cheeni Kum, Paa and Ki & Ka had consciously steered clear of biopics until he began exploring Muruganantham’s life. During one of the conversations with Muruga, as he is affectionately called, Balki says he was struck by how his model of success and fame had been inverted. “Muruga said he wasn’t a charity organization—though he knew he was doing good for women, he also said he was in a business where making money (by increasing the cost of pads) would make his venture flop. He said, ‘Only if I don’t increase profitability do I have a business. I will become famous but I will be the first famous man who will be the poorest man. Everyone thinks that by becoming rich you become famous, but I want to say that by not being rich you can be famous too.’"

Balki and Kumar were also drawn in by the opportunity to do something new. A Bollywood film with songs and a star that spotlights sanitary pads is a novel idea. “This story was so out of the box. A film on sanitary napkins has not been made, and I had the opportunity to do it with a very big star," says Balki. The broader motivation for the director and the co-producer, Khanna, is to encourage a conversation on a subject that largely remains taboo in India. During the research phase of the film’s development, Balki says he spoke to a number of agencies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and research firm Nielsen, and was astounded by the low numbers of women who use sanitary pads—not just in rural areas, but even in metropolitan cities like Mumbai.

“I learnt that, by god, there is a big, huge problem," says Balki. “At least 30-40% of women in Mumbai do not use pads, so can you imagine the statistic for the rest of the country? There are varying reasons for the stigma—from blind beliefs and superstition to price points and privacy. A pad may cost only Rs5, but Rs50 a month is a lot of money for people who are saving every paisa to give three meals to a family." This is the gap Muruga has plugged: producing a low-cost pad-making machine which is now available in 29 countries.

Balki’s hope is that PadMan acts as a catalyst for conversations. Muruganantham believes that, thanks to the film, the conversation has already started. “Cinema can drive these issues," says Balki, adding that he had taken a few liberties and “reinterpreted Muruga’s life. He has lived that life, but what can I add to it? That is my ambition as a film-maker. I told him, I don’t want you to applaud me for getting your life exactly right. I want you to say, I wish my life had been a little bit more like this."

When asked about the tandem writing process and how Khanna and he kept their manuscripts separate, Balki says, “I didn’t know what she was writing and she only partially knew what I was writing. In fact, both her story and my script were finished at the same time. Each one is a different interpretation, but all the credit for writing this film goes to Muruga, because anybody who could write a life like that leaves very little for us to write after that. We can only interpret it."

Balki and Kirkire wrote the film keeping in mind Akshay Kumar as the central character, Lakshmi. After Airlift and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, PadMan seems like an easy fit for Kumar. Balki agrees that while Kumar is not a man who courts controversy, he is also not shy of taking on challenges. “PadMan is possibly the riskiest film he has done. Akshay looks at ideas the way I do—if it has not been done before, it is not a risk but an opportunity."

The writer-director, who has shifted his focus almost entirely away from advertising to feature film direction and production, identified one common trait in his lead cast. “Neither Akshay, Radhika or Sonam talk about schools of acting, cinema, performance, etc. They come on set, do their scenes, crack a joke and go. But they come completely prepared, with all their homework done, and they make it look effortless. I have realized what an amazing actor Akshay is. He underplays his skills, but he has such instinctive understanding of a character. He gave the 11-minute speech we shot in the UN in one take. I know he is rehearsing like crazy and he really works at it, yet he doesn’t get overawed by the complexity. This film is really about all three characters."

With this experience, Balki reaffirms that adapting real-life stories is “exhausting". He prefers to mine his imagination for future scripts. “There must be a supreme reason for me to do a real-life story. I even find adapting books a handicap. A film stays for three days or a week and the only joy you have is the content you have created. Good or bad, at least it is your thought. How ever much this film works, I will always give credit to Muruga, because it is his life. I have not created his life. I have only tried to ensure I don’t destroy it. The joy of being associated with a life will be there, but the joy of creating a life will not be there," says Balki.

“Cinema can also give back to life," he adds. “The fun of cinema is not in the making of it—that’s labour. The fun of cinema is in the thinking of it. If the thinking has been done by somebody else then what is the joy in the labour?"

PadMan’s release has been pushed from 25 January to a later date.

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