This is a guest post by TANNISTHA SAMAMTHA and MUKTA GUNDI
With the success of “PadMan”, Akshay Kumar has established himself to be a bleeding-heart ‘feminist’. News channels are pouring praises for a film that introduces a ‘bold’ topic while regurgitating the crucial link between safe menstrual practices and women’s health. While the message is old (and important), the euphoria around it is new.
Women have been bleeding since time immemorial. In fact, over a standard life-course women’s bodies are capable of generating huge amounts of bodily fluids through events such as menstruation, birthing and breastfeeding. In a culture where discussions around women’s bodies (and bodily fluids) have been either silenced, met with disgust or served as an agent for misogynist comedy (e.g. Hollywood movie, Superbad (2007) or the reference to “test match”in PadMan), an open discussion on an intimate feminine hygiene is refreshing And PadMan achieves that. It has suddenly brought the hidden stained menstrual cloth right into the middle-class living room. Our most defining feminist moment in PadMan was when Lakshmi (Akshay Kumar) carefree-ly bicycles down the ghat only to realize that he has blood stains between his thighs-blood that has leaked out from the hisgoat blood filled football bladder designed to mimic the female uterus. A puzzled and embarrassed Lakshmi dives into the water, bloodying it, leaving a bunch of aghast spectators. Later, Lakshmi is accused of having some mysterious sexual disorder, shaming him in a Khap panchayat style feudal meeting. Those scenes in the film adeptly capture the moral-cultural anxiety over menstrual blood, the policing of the menstruating body and the public shaming of a biological process that is an unavoidable part of the female experience. Together, they offer a poignant critique of the cultural discomfort that girls are socialized into. That PadMan has inspirational dimensions is perhaps clear, but how it capitalizes on the orchestrated global image of the “mend and make do” (jugaad) ethic of an ‘awakened’ India embodying paternalistic ideals of nationalism and safety (of women), affords a sociological discussion.
Poverty and jugaad: The missing link
In PadMan we find a school drop-out husband make heart-warming efforts to ease the everyday hardships of his new bride. A wooden drumming toy bears the onslaught of being converted into an onion peeler or part of a half-broken chair lends itself to a bicycle pillion or the making of a low-cost pad dispensing machine combining ideas from the household kitchen. That this adaptive ingenuity is a purely ‘Indian’ trait is emphasized both by Lakshmi (Kumar) during his climatic speech at the United Nations and an Amitabh Bachhan who declares “1 billion people means 1 billion minds”. While immediately appealing, what gets glossed over in this framing is that jugaad is an outcome of adversity-it thrives on a culture of severe resource constraint and infrastructure deficit. This uplifting invocation of poverty lacks and shortages (of which jugaad is born)conceals the systemic failures of the state and the subsequent inequalities that it generates. As the social anthropologist, Prof Ravinder Kaur of IIT Delhi puts it “.the most obvious critique of postcolonial India-its failure to provide opportunities and access to social goods to all its citizens is presented as a positive force that enables innovative Indian citizens to retain their agency and be makers of their own destinies”. Jugaad’s unprecedented growth in public imagination feeds into this selective amnesia where deprivation is recast as industriousness and ‘below the radar’, quick-fix, cost-effective solutions (originating mostly from rural India) are tendered as a route to economic growth. It holds the promise of an ingenious Indian solution to the global recession. The attendant questions of risk, sustainability, legality are set aside; instead, as sociologists like Kaur argue,jugaad is extricated from the gray zone of illegality and packaged as a potent ‘laboratory to the world’ wherein the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ (the poor) can become vanguards of innovation and entrepreneurship.This dramatic re-imagination of the poor as disruptive innovators is not Bollywood’s doing and hence the film PadMan cannot be singularly called out to bear the weight of this narrative.But it is difficult to overlook this framing since it neatly maps into the inviting world of the ‘Make in India’ project launched soon after Modi’s electoral victory in 2014. That Kumar and his wife (Twinkle Khanna aka Mrs. Funnybones) are responding with a certain degree of allegiance to the dominant political order is hard to miss. After Modi’s much celebrated Independence Day (2014) speech on open defecation, women and safety, we had “Toilet Ek Prem Katha”, co-produced by Kumar. With the launch of the Swacch Bharat Mission (2014), the issue of sanitation and hygiene being further solidified, we have a PadMan (produced by Mrs. FunnyBones)committed to starting a conversation on the taboo topic of menstruation. Mrs. FunnyBones recently announced to continue her forays into such dominant political discussions by declaring that she now plans to work on reproductive rights of women. Although well-intentioned, there is no denying that there is profit in riding the high tide of political rhetoric.What makes PadMan revolutionary is not just its discourse on intimate feminine hygiene, but also in its promise of social mobility acquired through strenuous individual application under financial deprivation weaving thestandard neoliberal narrative where success is tied to personal responsibility. PadMan’s favourable political reception lies in the fact that it makes the rural poor ideal neoliberal subjects of the state.And by doing so, the movie offers, as UK-based researcher Thomas Birtchnell points out “a revised form of provincial, pastoral cosmopolitanism that unites the ethics of the village” to the global demands of the market.
The long shadow of patriarchy
In India, male validation of ‘women’s issues’ has gone a long way to jolt collective consciousness. We had a well-meaning Farhan Akhtarlaunching the MARD (Men Against Rape and Discrimination) campaign in 2013 to stop gender-based violence or an Abhay Deol on India’s obsession with fairness and the market around it to the recent Akshay Kumar posing with pictures of sanitary pads. What is interesting in these overt expressions of gender justice is that female activists and to some extent, female actors in Bollywood have been also fighting these causes. Unsurprisingly, the media adulation over such female struggles remains limited. We understand that in a culture of entrenched patriarchy, male privilege is hard to trump. And our well-meaning Kumar has been a beneficiary to this tradition. Significant to note that in becoming the ‘voice’ of poor rural women, Kumar (inadvertently) becomes a torchbearer of patriarchy, the same institution that he sets out to critique. Similar to other male validated gender justice initiatives, PadMan turns the woman’s body into a site where patriarchy, corporate profit and national identity play varying power games.The questions of ‘choice’ and ‘free will’ of these women are brushed aside, as Kumar ‘mans up’ the duty to help women realize ‘rational’ decisions about their own health. In a society where women’s bodies are often deemed the property of another, this depiction is deeply problematic. In this framing, menstruation is not seen as a critical component of women’s human right but rather as a prerogative of men.
Further, the movie establishes an easy equivalence between menstrual health and menstrual hygiene.The film mirrors the widely accepted masculine compulsion of ‘managing menstruation’ hygienically, and proffering sanitary napkins as the panacea for menstrual disorders. This automatically pushes the varied socio-cultural practices (such as using cloths as menstrual absorbents) to the margins and reduces them as unscientific. This medicalization of menstruation is problematic since it pathologizes the woman’s body and constructs traditional practices in the language of deficiencies and lacks. In fact, PadMan and post-PadMan euphoria have avoided effective discussions on alternative non-synthetic cloth based absorbents that can offer safe and hygienic menstrual experience.If one is ready to go past the patriotic wave of saving women, one can engage in a useful discussion on the limits of the commercial sanitary pads and disposal issues. Undoubtedly, a gender-based democratic participation is warranted where men and boys are increasingly socialized to be part of this conversation. However, given the longstanding alliance of patriarchy and global capitalism in furthering subjugation, some caution is desirable. South African youth activist, Mbuyiselo Botha’s quote is a reminder of this caution:“We (men) must also be conscious that we do not take over the gender struggle as men. We must always be conscious. The temptation is there, because of men’s tendency to take over. We must be constantly vigilant and remind ourselves that this is a struggle that has to be led by women”.Without a democratic reflexivity on the dangers of this masculine take-over, no ultra XL wings can absorb the patriarchal leak. Women will continue to bleed shame, self-hatred and fear over something that is entirely natural and unavoidable.
Birtchnell, Thomas (2011). Jugaad as systemic risk and disruptive innovation in India. Contemporary South Asia, 19(4)
Kaur, Ravinder (2016). The innovative Indian: Common man and the politics of jugaad culture. Contemporary South Asia, 24(3).