The Bollywood movie Pad Man created quite a buzz in India before even its actual release. Woven around the taboo subject of menstruation and menstrual hygiene, this film is director R. Balki’s first biopic and his first film with Akshay Kumar. In Pad Man, which released on 9 February, Akshay Kumar is playing the role of Tamil Nadu’s Arunachalam Muruganantham, the social entrepreneur who invented the low-cost machine for making sanitary pads. But the overall story revolves around so much more than this invention, and this complexity—of the issue, the story—is what Balki and Akshay Kumar have managed to capture so well in this film. The director speaks to Guardian 20 about Pad Man, working with Akshay Kumar and more.
Q. What made you decide to take up Pad Man?
A. Twinkle Khanna had met Arunachalam Muruganantham in London and thought it was a fascinating story. Post that, Akshay called me and asked me if I’d like to do the film. I’ve always been wary of doing biopics as I like to write my own stories. It was the first time anybody would be doing a mainstream commercial film on a subject (menstrual health), which is so important here. So I thought yes! Twinkle then started writing her book and I started work on the script with Swanand Kirkire, and both of us finished around the same time. So now we have two different aspects of Mr Muruganantham’s life.
Q. How much of Pad Man is a product of your own creativity versus Muruganantham’s real life?
A. We have taken some cinematic liberties but otherwise, it’s quite true to his life. His story is so interesting that there’s not much you need to add—you just need to capture it beautifully.
Q. Akshay Kumar in recent times has started doing more serious roles. Was it interesting for you to see him step into Arunachalam Muruganantham’s shoes?
A. Actually, I was always sure that Akshay was the perfect person to play this role, not because he was the one who called me. He told me I could cast anyone I want, but I said he was the perfect person for this character. In a lot of ways, Akshay is like Muruganantham—he is simple, quite natural and does things without a fuss like Muruganantham. He doesn’t think he’s done something great and just moves on. He’s adopted certain characteristics of Muruganantham but never copied him. Akshay has captured the essence of the character and interpreted it in his own way.
“I was always sure that Akshay was the perfect person to play this role. He is like Muruganantham—he is simple, quite natural and does things without a fuss like Muruganantham. He doesn’t think he’s done something great and just moves on.He’s adopted certain characteristics of Muruganantham but never copied him. Akshay has captured the essence of the character and interpreted it in his own way.”
Q. Amitabh Bachchan is playing a special role in your film. You seem to have a special relationship with him.
A. Everybody has a special relationship with Amitabh Bachchan and loves him— not just me. There are some roles that he loves to say yes to, and when I asked him to make a special appearance in Pad Man, he said yes. I can’t see anybody else playing this role—if you see the film, you’ll know what I’m saying.
Q. Has Muruganantham seen the film?
A. He knows all about the film and my story. The only thing Muruganantham kept saying was: “Forget my life, forget my story. Make this an entertaining film—unless it’s entertaining, nobody will get the message.” He’s not into documentation—the enjoyment of the film is very important.
Q. How important do you think it is to get the subject of menstrual hygiene across to people?
A. It is hugely important, but it’s also about reaching people and telling them a story. People tend to pick up a lot more form a story than from a message. It’s an emotional love story and this journey is a result of the deep love he had for her. It’s not a preachy film but it’s a classic love story-based film.
Q. Coming to music maestro Ilaiyaraaja, what is it about his music and him that you love so much?
A. He’s my inspiration; he is music to me. He is my background score in life!
“Muruganantham kept saying to us, ‘Forget my life, forget my story. Make this an entertaining film—unless it’s entertaining, nobody will get the message.He’s not into documentation—the enjoyment of the film is very important.”
Q. In a career spanning a decade, you’ve just done five films. Are you particular about the kind of films you take up?
A. I write my own films and I don’t write anything unless I believe it’s an idea or a thought worth spending a year or two years on. Filmmaking is a laborious process and something has to be worth it—it can’t be just money or anything else. The idea is what drives you. When you are passionate about the idea, making a film is a much more pleasant task.