TWINKLE KHANNA INTRODUCES A NEW KIND OF HERO WITH PAD MAN

by ASJAD NAZIR

THE horizon of Indian cinema expanding is perfectly illustrated by Pad Man, which is the first major Bollywood release of 2018.

Akshay Kumar plays the lead role in what will perhaps be the most unique commercial Hindi film release of the year.

It is a tale of a man who transforms the lives of countless women when he creates the world’s first low-cost machine for making sanitary napkins.

The comedy-drama, written and directed by R Balki, is based on true-life events and co-produced by Twinkle Khanna, who has become an advocate for girl power.

The actress-turned-producer found the remarkable story for the big screen and hopes it opens up a debate on an important issue. Sonam Kapoor and Radhika Apte also star in the uplifting drama.

Eastern Eye caught up with Twinkle to talk about Pad Man, working with her husband Akshay Kumar, girl power, success as a writer, and her new year’s resolution. She powered each answer with honesty and that winning smile…

After you left acting, was there a moment you missed it?

Never! I didn’t do well at acting and was desperate to get out. Sure, it was disheartening to think I had failed but I moved on. After all, I wanted to become a chartered accountant when I left school, not an actress! (Smiles) I am much happier where I have ended up and where I’m going.

You have become a very successful writer; what led you to finding that inner creativity?

The lack of creative fulfilment in acting! It just wasn’t something I was inclined towards. Becoming an actress was more about joining the family business, as everyone expects you to do.

Writing on the other hand has been moulded by my life experiences and growing up around strong women. It’s like yoga, letting me be mindful and allowing me to see the world on multiple levels. Writing has given me a platform for creativity that I am very thankful for.

Where do you draw your inspirations from?

I draw my inspiration from all over! I like to ask questions, talk to the people I meet and discover their stories. Doing those little things inspires me.

I find current topics are also a great source of inspiration. It may not be very funny, but I like to give it a twist and a different perspective to find a funny side to things happening in the world. We’re on this planet for a short while, so we might as well be happy.

What inspired you to produce Pad Man?

Pad Man was a story I felt needed to be told in every household, to start a conversation about menstruation. I first came across Arunachalam Muruganantham when I was researching for my column in The Times of India. His was a gripping story; a man who wanted to do something as simple yet important as creating a low-cost sanitary pad for his wife and was ostracised for it.

It inspired me to write the anthology, but even though that book was a success I was still determined to spread the message and the story as far and wide as possible. Whether we like it or not, most people in the modern era are comprised of viewers rather than readers, so film really is the best vehicle to propel this story to the forefront to educate the world. I even chased Arunachalam until he said yes to the film!

Did you not think the subject was too experimental for Hindi cinema?

It’s experimental in terms of being bold enough to have one of India’s most idolised stars, that too a man, advocating for menstrual hygiene. But when you peel back the layers, Pad Man is very much a family entertainer.

It’s essentially a compelling love story about a man willing to risk it all, including his marriage, to protect, empower and change the life of his wife and millions of other women. He seems like the ideal man that any girl would dream of!

Did Akshay Kumar agree to come on board straight away or did he need convincing?

Akshay was more than game from the get-go. He didn’t need convincing for any of it, even for wearing a sanitary pad! I’m proud Akshay is a strong woman empowerment champion and always been passionate about furthering this cause.

For those who don’t know, can you tell us a little more about the man it’s based on?

Arunachalam Muruganantham is truly remarkable. Here was a humble man who tried to create a low-cost sanitary pad for his wife and the women around him despite the taboos around menstruation. It led him to be ostracised, and even without his dear wife for a time; yet he continued, testing out his sanitary pad on himself with little more than a pig’s bladder!

He’s probably the only man who learnt how it feels to be a woman on her period. Now he runs a company making machines that create the low-cost sanitary pads for women in rural communities and supplies them to not-for-profits and NGOs who can reach heartland India.

Was it easy convincing him that you wanted to make a movie about his life and how much input did he have?

No, convincing him was one of the most difficult parts, whereas making the actual film was actually a walk in the park. He had some reservations although I am not sure what they were. It took some chasing and phone calls before we met in England by pure coincidence one time.

He needed time to come round, but I was eventually able to persuade him with the idea that we would be spreading his story and educational message about periods across the country through cinema.

Tell us about the film adaptation…

R Balki has written the story and screenplay for Pad Man and is also directing the movie. It’s a love story at heart, showing the story of what a man will do to bring dignity to his wife at any cost, even if that cost is his marriage.

Who is the film aimed at?

However clichéd this sounds, the film is aimed at everyone, including families. We want to create a conversation about periods in households across the country, whether it’s in the car or over the kitchen table. We are also keen for men to see the film, to see Akshay in the lead role, and let them know it’s not a taboo topic. So don’t be afraid to bring dad, son, brother or uncle along!

What is your favourite moment in the movie?

I would say it’s a scene where Akshay delivers a heart-warming monologue in a foreign land. Without giving anything away, after all the hard work and ridicule that Pad Man has gone through, it is good to see everyone listening to him!

Pad Man deals with an important subject; how much of an issue is it in India today?

The taboo around menstruation is still very much alive in India today. I feel as if women have been made to feel ashamed about their periods, hence don’t speak about it.

The stigma still exists and there remains a lack of awareness and facilities, which means girls are still dropping out of school when they start menstruating because they have no access to sanitary towels. For a natural part of the female body to lead to 20 per cent of girls dropping out of schools is unbelievable. That’s why Pad Man is such an important film for whole families to see as it impacts everyone.

What is the dynamic between you and Akshay when he is acting and you are producing?

Producer and actor are already two different roles on a film set, and even more different from that of wife and husband! But I think we work very well together.

Twinkle Khanna and Akshay Kumar at the Pad Man press launch

He is the hard-working out of the leading men in Bollywood, but a family man too. How do you disconnect from the spotlight?

It’s not that difficult to disconnect. We have clear rules of demarcation to make sure we spend family time together. For example, Sunday is our very own family Fri-yay!

Have you made a new year’s resolution?

My new year’s revolution is simple. I plan to leave the world in a better place than I found it, and to have fun while I’m on my crusade to do good!

You have won hearts with your sense of humour and are known as Mrs Funnybones, but who is the funniest person you know?

Probably Akshay, my very own Mr FunnyBones!

You have become a symbol of girl power; how important is woman empowerment as an issue for you?

Empowerment is a very important issue for me. I grew up in a household full of independent women who were painting, playing the guitar or writing, so I grew up never really subscribing to the rules of society about what women are supposed to do or not.

Across the world, the journey of women wanting equality is just beginning. I believe there are a lot of things we need to work towards. Empowerment starts from the time you raise your children, with the important values you teach, which includes talking about things like periods.

What key advice would you give young girls?

To stay true to themselves. It is our imperfections that make us special and unique. Embrace the unconventional, because if we stand by those flaws, it will pay off eventually like it did for me!

How much of a role can men play in the issue of women empowerment?

There is definitely a role for men – that’s where the change needs to come from as well. Arunachalum and Akshay both show how men can directly support and raise awareness of the issues that affect women and help further the causes of women empowerment as a result. That is another of the film’s messages, that men are very much part of the problem and the solution.

What other social issues are you most passionate about?

The environment. I work with the group Rasta Chap, who paint dead trees to raise awareness of the amount of trees that are dying around us. They work on a number of great initiatives, including sustainable food projects and banning plastic bag usage in schools to help improve the environment.

Why should we all watch Pad Man?

Everyone should go and see Pad Man not only because you’ll be entertained throughout but you will walk out feeling inspired with a burning passion to want to be the next superhero on a mission for social good!