Padman & Periods: Does the movie depict the true state of our society?

I am not a movie freak. But, I admit that I have watched more movies in last one year than all the movies I had watched till then. As I watch more and more movies, I realize how film-makers could potentially leverage the platform to raise issues prevalent in our surrounding, though they are not obligated to do so. Many a time, filmmakers take up issues that are commonplace in the society but are either too trivial for us to notice or too complicated for us to try and solve it. Padman, interestingly, falls in both the brackets. The issue of menstrual hygiene is either trivialized or branded as too complicated and hence pushed to tiny pigeonhole meant for insoluble problems such as corruption or women safety. Being a girl, I could connect to the narrative of the movie. I am from a middle class, semi-conservative, educated family. I have been brought up together with my cousins – male cousins. Male cousins in my extended family had to compulsorily study while female cousins had to choose between studying beyond matriculation and marriage. Sadly enough, most of my female cousins chose the later. Owing to my parents’ foresightedness and my own professional aspirations, I chose to study and establish my independent existence just like the males in the household. As a result, I was always treated as an outsider in the female gang of the house.  I do not intend to bore you with my family tree, but it is important for you to know where I am coming from to understand my interpretation of the story of the movie Padman.

Everyone says I am my dad’s girl. There’s a ritual of sharing every incident of my life with its finer details with the dad first. So, when I had my first period, I ran to my father and was about to brag about the new disease that I had discovered in myself. This is when my aunt dragged me inside making some lame excuse and enquired whether there was any issue. I told her about the vaginal bleeding which wasn’t stopping. I was given menstrual education thereafter and instructed strictly not to discuss it with any male in the house. Yes, it was foolish that I didn’t know till then about the real existence of periods though I had read about it in my biology classes. To my utter dismay, those ghosts appeared again after a month. It was then that I was further told that it will be a regularly repeating affair.  While I secretly prayed for a miraculous day when there would be no more of these painful ghostly visits, I discovered that even the absence of periods was a matter of dreadful concern when one of my friends missed her periods, to be discovered later by the physician that it was examination stress and nothing eventful.

The movie Padman depicts how girls are considered ‘impure’ and are out-casted from the family during the periods. While this may appear as a tragic aberration to many of the readers, sadly this practice is still in place. Let me tell you an instance from my life. Every day, I start my day thanking the mighty sun and bowing down to it before I eat. I was told that I could not pray or worship any God during the days of period.  I questioned that how could natural non-malicious process make someone so impure as to make him ineligible to worship the creator. But, soon I realized that I was up against a ritual that all the females in my family have had followed and honored for decades. It was not easy to confront such deep-rooted evil. I understood why my grandmom survived on Beatrice or readymade food five days a month. The reason was that she supposedly couldn’t have food touched by my mom while she was bleeding.

“Don’t touch pickles”.
“Don’t enter sacred spaces.”
“Don’t do this or that.”
These diktats would mark the beginning of the menstrual cycle.  When life inside the house was so unpleasant, how could the life be any better outdoors? The most irritating times were when there were stains on clothes of a jaunty teenager such as me that too on white PT dress of school and all of a sudden I would find crowd giggling around me. And, some concerned friend or teacher would hush you to change to an extra pair of dress from school’s sick room.

The most embarrassing of all were moments when all the cousins would be sitting together and grandma would come up to me and ask,
“Are you impure beta?”
“Don’t come near me.”
“When will you be pure?”
This shallow definition of purity would shatter me to the core.  I will reiterate here that I come from highly educated family; still, I didn’t have the courage to speak about chums and their periodicity. What should we expect from girls who are aloof from all the education and are brought up as a liability?

To take my personal story as a tragic aberration is to forget the dismal facts and figures of the country’s menstrual hygiene. National Family Health Survey (NFHS) report (2015-16) shows that the use of sanitary napkins among Indian women stands at 48.5% in the rural populace and 77.5% in the urban populace, resulting in cumulative usage of 57.6% across the country. It’s not that sanitary napkins are not affordable to all of us. While sanitary pads are beyond reach for some, some consider these as a complete waste of money. We don’t understand the risk of associated infections with the use of unhygienic measures. As a matter of fact, women using unhygienic measures are 70% more prone to reproductive tract infection. Its high time now that we talk openly about these issues and address them. Why do we hesitate in discussing a process as common and natural as our hunger or thirst? At this point, I will give due credit to the film to highlight the fact that even people who find sanitary napkins expensive are more than happy to dole out an equivalent amount of money for some blind faith or illogical custom. It is more a matter of displaced priority than lack of money.

I am not gainsaying that a basic necessity such as pads should be affordable. We need to make essentials like sanitary pads and menstrual cups both accessible and affordable for everyone. It is equally critical to educate women about the menstrual hygiene to reduce the infection due to negligence. This movie is a small step in the direction of creating much-needed awareness. Kudos to Arunachalam Muruganantham, the real-life hero whose life has been enacted by Akshay Kumar in the movie.  We should not forget that when a change agent takes up an issue which the society treats as a taboo, he always runs the risk of being boycotted or being targeted by some sections of the society. Spearheading such a burning social issue was indeed commendable and all credits to the inventor of low-cost sanitary pads manufacturing machine. Hats off to R. Balakrishnan for picking such a relevant issue and presenting it to us in way that most of us could connect. But let’s not expect any magical change overnight due to the movie. Unless we as girls voice our concerns, society will not change. Right from our grandmoms to moms to us, all of us should understand that period is not a taboo. On the contrary, period is very critical to maintain progeny. It is a biological process as natural as our hunger. It does not make us ‘impure’, it only makes us human.

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