Pad Man Review: Pad Man is less Pad and more Man
Like Toilet, another Akshay Kumar chest-beating vehicle, Pad Man feels less like cinema and more like a public interest video
The concept of R Balki directed Pad Man, the film, is credited to Twinkle Khanna. From the beginning and till its release - a period when no one was aware of the merits or demerits of the film - there have been conceptual problems with Pad Man. The film is set in Madhya Pradesh, the character is not Arunachalam Muruganathan - the real-life Pad Man from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu - but Lakshmikant Chauhan, played by Akshay Kumar. The story from Tamil Nadu and the identity of a Tamil has been erased and replaced by a Chauhan belonging to the Hindi belt. It is also the surname of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, a Bharatiya Janata Party man, who is thanked in the opening credits (Toilet: Ek Prem Katha was, of course, a long commercial for BJP's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan). There are arguments to be made on how this is not dissimilar to the white-washing of Asian characters that routinely occurs in Hollywood. The other conceptual issue with Pad Man is what it is built up to be. A social awareness campaign. Like Toilet, another Akshay Kumar chest-beating vehicle, Pad Man feels less like cinema and more like a public interest video. The message films are among the most painful. They are lost somewhere between what is being said and how it is being said. And Akshay Kumar is slowly mastering the system. Just the way Akshay has hijacked a Tamil story, maybe it is time for Rajinis and Kamals of the world to hijack Kumar's modus operandi to gain political mileage. It seems to be working.
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Sonam Kapoor, Radhika Apte
Director: R Balki
There are many parallels and Akshay Kumar has decided to handle a roster of sanitation issues. In Toilet, there is a panchayat scene where his idea of building a toilet for his wife at his own home is violently opposed. By the village and by his own family. In the scene, Akshay even quotes manusmriti and corrects everyone's interpretation of it. Pad Man too has a panchayat scene where Lakshmikant Chauhan is banished. His own mother and sisters don't want anything to do with him anymore, and his wife, Radhika Apte as Gayathri, has tolerated him long enough. By now, Akshay's nationalism and social awareness tinged films are beginning to follow a pattern. A commoner challenges a taboo subject of a society in the most simplistic manner and is then punished for it. He then rises beyond it, for the world to see and understand his intentions, and hail him as lord saviour of mankind. Rustom Pavri was a patriot, a nationalist who did not want the Navy to get a bad name. Keshav Sharma wanted to abolish open defecation. Pad Man wants to make low-cost sanitary pads. All noble, all much welcome. But as cinema, Akshay and his filmmakers, Balki in this case, handle them in the most dramatic and statement-making flourishes.
Lakshmikant is introduced as a practical man, both literally and ideologically. That he is a problem solver is well established, when he fashions onion choppers and cycle seats out of everyday things. For a while, the going is good - at times even entertaining - to watch an open-minded man grapple with a problem that even the women around him are not willing to be open about. When Gayathri is going through her periods, Balki films Akshay inside his bedroom and Gayathri outside, in exile from the interiors of the house during those days, and it becomes an interesting visual choice. The open-minded man is locked up, not only disallowed from solving her problem but also denied from even broaching the subject with her or his sisters. At one point when he is alienated, a curtain comes over the balcony where the women of the family sleep during the five days and Lakshmikant is framed from below, against it. But Balki doesn't stop there. He thinks you probably missed it, so he focuses directly at the closed balcony. Did you get it now? Pad Man’s most powerful weapon is a sledgehammer.
There is more of Balki standing on your shoulders and whispering into your ear "get it? get it?". Sonam Kapoor, who chances upon Lakshmikant and inevitably becomes the first one to use his pad, is named Pari. Angel investor takes a whole new meaning. It is a sweet touch that Pari is a daughter brought up by a single parent - the father - which lends credence to the idea that Lakshmikant is supported and understood foremost by this pair. But Balki also brings in alcoholic domestic-abuser husbands and misogynist brothers to make his point sound louder. A problem like low-cost sanitary pads and sanitation for women is challenging enough without a man in the picture. All this does is only project Lakshmikant as the superhero the film wants him to be. He is better than these men and look what you did to him, is what the film wants to say. Balki also brings in Amitabh Bachchan as a chief guest for - wait for it - a social innovation contest in IIT-Delhi (a prime example of how Bollywood makes everything about itself). For every half a step in front, Balki takes two steps back. Pad Man is less Pad and more Man. One question though. Why is Pari introduced as a tabla maestro? That is one Balki “get it?” that I don’t have a clue about.