Launching Pad

R. Balki directs Akshay Kumar

Launching Pad R. Balki, director, PadMan

Two men are hugging in a room of four hundred women. One of them is in tears. The young ladies sit mesmerised by what they see in front—first, it is a film, then, the two inspiring men behind it— Arunachalam Muruganantham, the original PadMan, and R. Balki, his creator on screen. 

It is the enormity of this first screening amid rural women, all aged 13-15, that puts PadMan in perspective, and that of an overwhelmed Arunachalam rising to thank Balki for making him a superhero. But there’s no sobbing high tears about social responsibility here. If a film has to be anything, says the director, it must be absolute fun. ‘All cinema is socially responsible because you are supposed to entertain society! That is the purpose of cinema, to engage and entertain. In any message today, the form of entertainment keeps changing…you can make people cry, you can make people laugh, you can make people think, make people feel. All are socially responsible ways to it. The only socially irresponsible cinema is one that bores you!’  

Balki does not believe in cause play and he was, in fact, quite against the idea of a biopic at first, but something about Arunachalam’s story stuck with him to do what he didn’t think he would. ‘I had seen a TED talk by Arunachalam much earlier when I was doing some advertising, but then later one day, Twinkle Khanna met Arunachalam in London, and then Akshay [Kumar] and Twinkle called me saying they are interested in doing a film on this guy’s life. So I met them and I thought about it, and told them I’m not comfortable doing a biopic on anybody’s life because it is very difficult. But then I thought I’d never get an opportunity to make a film on a pad, and this man’s life is like a thriller, so I guess there was a phenomenal story to tell and talk about a topic that had not been spoken before, so it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I said yes.’ 

“All cinema is socially responsible because you are supposed to entertain society. The only socially irresponsible cinema is one that bores you!”

Interestingly, Twinkle wanted to write a short story on Arunachalam around the same time that the filmmaker was developing his script, so two parallel adaptations of his life were being penned at the same time. ‘Both her book and the film are very different takes on his life,’ he informs. ‘She read the script after I wrote the book; I read the book after I read the script. Of course, both adaptations are slightly fictionalised because you need to do that both for cinematic and literary purposes, but both are fictionalised differently.’ 

There are two reasons that rendered Akshay perfect for the part, says Balki, apart from the actor’s own interest in Arunachalam’s path-breaking work in the field of menstrual hygiene. ‘Why would anybody watch this film, and how would it reach all the people that it was supposed to reach? That is one reason. The second reason is the fact that in a lot of ways, Akshay does a lot of wonderful things in real life and doesn’t care about it, he just moves on. He is very obsessed with one kind of a goal and work, not so much of the result of it. I found him a simple human being and not complicated, he doesn’t intellectualise. So Akshay was the perfect Muruganantham.’ 

“Akshay does a lot of wonderful things in real life and doesn’t care about it. He is very obsessed with one kind of work, not so much the result...I found him a simple human being. So he was the perfect Muruganantham.”

But good acting is far from imitation. ‘Akshay never imitated Muruganantham. Most people who play a character who is alive tend to copy his mannerism, his look and talk, but Akshay never did any of that. He spoke to him, observed him, he absorbed his character and interpreted the whole character in his way and that is the beauty of his performance,’ says Balki. And dare you call the film’s ladies ‘supporting actors’. ‘Radhika [Apte] and Sonam [Kapoor] are the pillars of the film. Without them there is no main character. And it is a film of three people; it is constructed as a love story with three people.’

Launching Pad Akshay and Balki on set

Akshay and Balki on set

The director’s creative process is clear. ‘I have a very clear idea of the actors I’m writing for, and I don’t chip and chop the script later. I mostly make all the changes while writing the script and then it is shot as it is. Cinema itself is the job of preserving all the feelings you had while writing the script as you shoot. And that is what I tried doing. Of course, in every film you try and do something that you have not done before…this is unlike any other film because no other has been done on menstrual hygiene.’ The catchy title predictably came easy to him after decades in advertising and filmmaking.   

For Balki, the real success of PadMan lies in the message hitting home. ‘The first screening that was in Gujarat saw about 400 girls, many from villages around Ahmedabad, who had just attained puberty or were about to and had to be familiarised with menstrual hygiene. The film evoked a beautiful reaction from them, it was a really moving experience. It was one of those very satisfying reactions, how much they enjoyed and how much they came to know.’ He agrees that Film is a very powerful medium, ‘especially commercial, mainstream cinema’, in how it impacts people. ‘For example, the number of times people have said “PadMan” is more than the number of times they have said aloud the word ‘pad’ in their lives! That itself is actually a change. The second thing is, when you come into this kind of a film with your family, you tend to talk about such topics a little more openly than how you have in the past. So the conversations begin. Fathers have to know about their daughters, brothers have to know about their sisters, sons ought to know these things about mothers. Men have to understand these things about women. So it is a great familiarising and equalising experience when you watch the film with your family.’ And that, he says, is the pride of PadMan.

Text Soumya Mukerji