“Padman”… Another patented Akshay Kumar “issue” movie, aka a broad, rousing crowd-pleaser

Posted on February 11, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

As someone who enjoys the gimmicky premises in R Balki’s films, I was surprised by the opening portions of Pad Man – the director plays it safe, and dead-straight. The story is based on the amazing life of Arunachalam Muruganantham (reincarnated here as Lakshmikant Chauhan, played by Akshay Kumar), who invented a way to make low-cost sanitary napkins, but instead of “setting up” the character, the way a conventional biopic would, Balki (with co-writer Swanand Kirkire) quickly sets up the issue, of women’s hygiene. If you want to know how this barely educated villager developed such a scientific temperament in a community so governed by superstition, this is not the film for you. In Balki’s eyes, that’s a given. Lakshmikant sees his wife, Gayatri (Radhika Apte), tearing up while chopping onions. Boom! He invents a slicer. He sees that she’s uncomfortable sitting behind him on his cycle. Boom! He designs a backseat.

And so, when Lakshmikant sees Gayatri using dirty rags during her periods (when she isn’t allowed to enter the house)… Boom! He designs a sanitary napkin. (Actually, he buys a pack, and when she’s horrified at how much it costs, he opts for a do-it-yourself approach.) Your response to the rest of the film – he tries, he fails, he tries again, he fails, he tries, he succeeds – will probably depend on whether you liked this star’s earlier outing in this territory, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Because these issues are so obvious to urban audiences, the expositions can come off like PSAs (and they are, in a way), but like older, issue-based Hindi cinema, these broad, rousing films wear the heart on the sleeve, and if some complexity is lost, the sweetness and simplicity makes up for it. These are stories about people first, issues only later.

And what nice people they are! Among the things I like most in this avatar of Akshay Kumar is that he’s bringing niceness back to the big screen. After years of hip filmmakers weaned on foreign cinema, it’s nice to smell the soil again – even if it is designer soil. Amit Trivedi’s background score is unforgivably heavy, but his earthy songs work beautifully with PC Sreeram’s cinematography (possibly his warmest palette ever, filled with yellows and browns). The wry humour is the kind you can imagine being written for Om Prakash. When a pharmacist surreptitiously hands Lakshmikant a pack of sanitary napkins, he asks, “Ganja charas de rahe ho?” And there’s at least one subversion I enjoyed. In the older films, the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is fraught, but here, the son is the cause of domestic tension.

A question, now, arises. Is it right that the life of a Coimbatore-based inventor-entrepreneur is scented with the flavour of a bygone era of Hindi cinema? The answer comes from Arunachalam Muruganantham himself, who told The Hindu that he did not want the story to be made in Tamil. “I did have Tamil filmmakers approach me,” he said.But I did not want the film to be confined to one part of the country.” Which makes sense, then, that Balki relocates this southern story to the centre of the country: Madhya Pradesh. The film, too, exists at the centre – neither too radical, nor too progressive. There’s not a single unexpected moment. The reasoning, perhaps, is that the premise is discomfiting enough, so the focus is more on how to make the medicine go down easy.

In Balki’s hands, the medicine becomes a milkshake. Pad Man is almost alarmingly well-oiled, with Lakshmikant’s progress seeming the result not so much of hard work as the constant presence of a fairy godmother. (Indeed, the Sonam Kapoor character, who helps him when he needs it the most, is named Pari.) An angry lender demands that Lakshmikant repay his loan. Boom! The next second, a call arrives from Pari, offering a way out. A woman in the neighbourhood is oppressed by her alcoholic husband. Boom! Lakshmikant “invents” an idea so she can be self-sufficient. The women in the village are hesitant to try Lakshmikant’s product. Boom! Pari arrives, and becomes his sales girl, showing him that, in these situations, women respond better to a woman’s presence.

It’s the bullet-point approach to screenwriting, but it works. For one, the breakneck pace cuts through the clichés of the Obsessed, Eccentric, Single-minded Inventor biopic. The beats in these films are almost always the same, and if you’ve seen the recent Malayalam entries in this genre (Aby, Vimaanam), you’ll know how well-intentioned earnestness can cripple a story. The trick is to find a way out of this familiarity, and Balki’s way out is by employing this pace, and a direct appeal to our emotions. When Gayatri receives a call from Lakshmikant after a long time, she’s devastated that he keeps talking about his product instead of enquiring about her. Part of the film’s mission is to show Gayatri how wrong she is. As in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, this protagonist is an inherently decent man who does what he does because he cannot bear to see his wife suffer.

I misted up at several points – when Pari dismisses Lakshmikant’s product as a “sasta [inexpensive] pad” and he explains how much it cost him, or when he realises the thing really works. And the interval block is stupendously conceived. Like many of these mad scientists, Lakshmikant is fixated on how he can change the world, and he doesn’t give much thought to how all this is making Gayatri (and the other women in his family) feel. So we get the moment where he “tries on” the product to test it, and it malfunctions spectacularly – and he experiences, first-hand, the public embarrassment and shame women feel about this matter. Pad Man may skip over the “logistical” logic, not delving too deeply into the whats and whys, but its emotional logic is sound.

And Balki never loses sight of the fact that what he’s making isn’t an Oscar-bait biopic but a rousing audience-pleaser. There are fantastic “mass” moments. We laugh when Lakshmikant goes to a garment store and asks for a “mahila ki chaddi,” his size. We laugh again when he asks money from the very man demanding his loan back. The easy banter between Pari and her vathakuzhambu-making father is pure Balki (and, by extension, pure Mani Ratnam, who’s Drona to Balki’s Eklavya). This quippy lightness prevents the love angle (Pari falls for Lakshmikant) from becoming too painful, though I wish the film had done away with it altogether. Sonam Kapoor does the world’s worst imitation of playing the tabla, but her performance, otherwise, is like her character: light, breezy.

It helps that she doesn’t have to anchor the movie – that’s left to the other two stars. Radhika Apte shows what a perceptive actress can do with a small range of emotions. All Gayatri seems to be doing is whimpering about her husband’s perceived misdeeds, but this anguish is so heartfelt that we never lose sight of her viewpoint even as we celebrate her husband. As for Akshay Kumar, his likeability factor in these good-hearted simpleton roles is off the charts. (I can’t imagine another actor selling that corny, cutesy UN speech.) Unlike Manoj Kumar, who is Akshay’s predecessor in this type of film, he has a sense of humour about himself, and he powers past his actorly limitations with sheer charm. Manoj Kumar felt like a dour teacher with a cane. Akshay feels like a friend. That niceness thing, he does it best.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi