The man who made Padman
R Balki discusses his upcoming Akshay Kumar-starrer that’s based on the life of entrepreneur and innovator, Arunachalam Muruganantham
Padman’s a film of many firsts. It’s the first film in India — arguably in the world — to be centred on the subject of menstruation. It’s director R Balki’s first biopic. It’s also the first time his film will not have music by Ilaiyaraaja. In this revealing conversation, Balki opens up on the film and the man it’s based on, while also touching on how the story has helped his own perceptions evolve.
When you first heard the story of Arunachalam Muruganandam, what did you think was most striking about it?
I think, his obsession. He found a problem, and he couldn’t rest till he found a solution. There were plenty of detractors along the way, but he just didn’t care. I think his definitive trait is his obsession for finding answers.
Along the way, plenty of women, no doubt, must have thought him creepy for prying into their menstrual habits.
There were, of course, but again, he didn’t care. He had no fear. Also, I think his is a classic love story of a man’s concern for his wife. He once found his wife making do with some dirty cloth — as they were a family of little means. When he saw this, he just had to find a way to make things easier for her.
That it’s a love story will make sure that Padman is not seen as a preachy film. His life itself is quite entertaining, actually. So we didn’t have to think too hard about making it entertaining.
How has working on this film shaped your own perceptions on the topic?
I think I was already sensitised, given my background in advertising. One of the earliest memories I have of it was seeing my mother sitting by the courtyard. But yes, you could say my awareness was limited till I started working on this film.
Even in educated households, there’s a general air of taboo around the topic of menstruation, no?
There’s something interesting we have noticed during the last couple of years. People are generally reluctant to talk about it. There’s a certain shyness that stops them. But if someone does the talking, they are happy to listen. And slowly, as you talk to them, they eventually open up and begin talking too. And when they do, they have no reservations calling it a ‘pad’.
Given the uncomfortable nature of the topic, I imagine it must lend itself naturally to humour?
There’s a lot of innocent humour in the film. It is, after all, the story of an innocent, pure man. The jokes are written both around those who fight for it, and those who believe it’s a taboo topic.
Padman’s your first film that doesn’t have music by Ilaiyaraaja.
It’s mainly because of the setting of this film. We needed an accurate representation of the North Indian ethos. The sound needed a lot of folk cues drawn from the setting.
I consider it a great blessing to work with Ilaiyaraaja, and will go back to him for my next film.
But somehow, your Tamil association persists, given that the story’s based on a man from Coimbatore.
(Laughs) Hey, we also have PC Sreeram as the cinematographer.
I understand that your protagonist, based on Muruganandam, goes by a different name. Was it awkward to make a biopic, but have the character named differently and his life set in a different place?
We ran it all by him, of course. He knew we were making an adaptation. He isn’t an egotistic man, and was just focussed on getting the country sensitised to this issue. It would have been odd, had we made a Hindi film set in Coimbatore. Our ultimate aim then was to capture the spirit of his story, its thematic significance. That’s why even Akshay hasn’t looked to emulate his body language. We didn’t want his caricature, we wanted his soul. Muruga saw the film two days back and was moved to tears by it.
Did you consider making it a bilingual maybe?
Not at all. It’s very hard to shoot bilinguals. Perhaps eventually, we may get it remade in Tamil. I didn’t even want to get a dubbed version made. I didn’t think it would done justice to the character.
Your last film, Ki and Ka, was about the reversal of gender roles. Shamitabh was about a man who gave voice for another. Paa was about a rare medical condition, progeria. And now, a film on menstruation. Can we conclude you’re drawn to quirky subjects?
I keep looking for something new, something that drives me. I should be excited enough to remain occupied with it for two years.
Perhaps your advertisement background plays its part in your interest in these ideas?
I think it’s a misconception that advertisements are quirky. I think 99.99 percent of all advertisements are rather straightforward. I think my interest in these ideas stems from the belief that if you want attention, you have to be different.
In a way, like Muruganandam?
Sure. His lateral thinking is his strong suit. He thought like that about everything in the world. When I first met him, he had just come from a workshop, and his black clothes bore the grease stains of a machine he was working on. Another person would have been embarrassed, but he actually said he should consider wearing white instead. He said, “What’s the point of all the labour if you can’t show evidence of it on your clothes?”