Meet Muruganantham: India's original Pad Man
Ahead of the launch of the Akshay Kumar-starrer, the humble innovator talks about his role in revolutionising menstrual healthcare in India
Published: Thu 25 Jan 2018, 11:00 PM
Last updated: Mon 5 Feb 2018, 8:41 AM
A FILMY AFFAIR
'America has Superman, Batman and Spiderman..but India has Pad Man,' Amitabh Bachchan's voiceover states, to comic effect, in the opening scenes of the trailer. In it, Akshay Kumar may be pegged as India's most unusual hero yet, but the real champion of the story is undoubtedly Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man on whom the movie is based. A school dropout from Coimbatore, Muruganantham revolutionised women's healthcare both in and out of India when he built a low-cost machine that makes sanitary napkins, thus making them more accessible to women in rural areas. His life story of determination and creativity has surprised people the world over, so it's no wonder it attracted the likes of Bollywood.
But even with a movie on his life releasing soon, Muruganantham has assured people he won't let fame get to his head. And his humility shines through during a recent phone call in which he laughs and thanks me after I congratulate him on the upcoming movie.
"When they first came and asked me for permission, I had to be dragged to the meeting because I didn't have any faith," confesses Muruganantham. "Sometimes, even when you win a prize, you don't actually get the benefits of it. But they finally convinced me to give them the rights for the movie by telling me it is going to be produced by a woman. As a woman, she will be able to understand (the topic). Once I realised that, everything was good."
The woman he refers to is none other than Twinkle Khanna whose short story The Sanitary Man of Sacred Land, is inspired by Muruganantham and forms the basis for the movie's plot. Moreover, Khanna vehemently pushed for the project and it will be the first film from her newly-launched production house Mrs Funnybones Movies. Considering her influence, it would be easy to assume husband Akshay Kumar was cast for personal reasons - but that isn't true. Khanna admitted she had other actors in mind; it was director R. Balki and Muruganantham himself who insisted Kumar play the lead role.
"He is a very down-to-earth personality. He can handle serious roles," says Muruganantham, who was worried about having a star whose presence would eclipse the importance of the theme. "This is the role of a very public character and he is very much matched for that character. He is a star but not a 'super duper' star like Salman Khan. He is a simple man."
Muruganantham may have been cautious about the movie, but he has clearly taken it in his stride and is excitedly awaiting its release, as is the rest of his family. "This is the first time a hero will be talking about women's menstruation in Bollywood. It's also the first time in the rest of the world," he says. "In India, more than reading, people want to watch a movie. So, I think awareness will be raised. At least 100 million women will realise (the facts) about menstrual hygiene - there is no doubt."
Arunachalam Muruganantham's life story is one that has been told time and again, and the upcoming film will probably cover it exhaustively. Yet, it is one so unbelievable that it never fails to impress. Muruganantham's father, a handloom weaver in Coimbatore, passed away when he was a young boy. In order to supplement the household income, Muruganantham dropped out of school during grade four and took up odd jobs, including that of a workshop helper and welder. It was only when he was nearly 30 - and newly married - that he got acquainted with the female menstrual cycle when he found his wife Shanti trying to hide dirty rags from him. When he asked her why she was using unhygienic methods to manage her period, she replied that she knew about sanitary napkins - but buying them meant cutting into the family's milk budget.
Wanting to impress his new wife, Muruganantham set out to buy a packet of sanitary napkins for her and was surprised by the shopkeeper's furtive attitude towards the pads - looking around before wrapping it up in newspaper. He was also surprised how something so light, and filled with seemingly inexpensive cotton, could cost so much. And thus, began his mission to create a cheaper alternative.
It was no mean feat. Muruganantham could not test the products he created and so he needed the help of his wife and, after she refused, his sisters and female medical students. Unfortunately, with menstrual health being such a taboo, the women who used the pads were unwilling to give him decent explanations. Desperate to understand, Muruganantham decided to wear the pads himself.
It wasn't long before people in his village began to notice his odd behaviour. "People used to chase me away - they thought I was a mad man," says Muruganantham. At one point, it got so bad, they started avoiding him on the streets and nearly tied him up to a tree. His wife, ashamed of his fixation with menstrual health, left him after only 18 months of marriage, and sent him a divorce notice. But he was a man with a mission, and he wasn't going to let anything get in his way.
Muruganantham took to calling American manufacturers, and requesting samples from them. One finally sent a sample of the cellulose, made from wood pump, and it was the breakthrough he needed. He then spent years developing a cheaper alternative - and more years creating an inexpensive machine that could create these pads. "It took me eight and a half years," says Muruganantham. "And it was all through trial and error. The people who chased me before have now changed their minds. Now, they say Muruganantham is doing something great!"
CHANGING WOMEN'S LIVES
According to the Indian National Family Health Survey of 2015-16, women between the age of 15-24 using hygienic methods during their menstrual cycle is estimated to be 77.5 per cent in urban areas and 48.2 per cent in rural areas. Other women resort to using rags, wood chippings, newspaper and even sand in the place of pads which, other than being ineffective, increase the risk of infections. Without effective pads, many girls are unable to step out of the house for a week every month - thus preventing them from attending school, sitting for exams and even working. By providing these women with sanitary napkins, Muruganantham changed lives. "They get more confidence," he says proudly. "They don't need to stop working or to drop examinations. Women empowerment happens with simple sanitary pads!"
Many women chose to avoid pads because of the taboo factor: in backward parts of India, people believe women who are menstruating to be 'dirty' and ban them from certain spaces - kitchens being one example.
"It is still a taboo. not just in India but across the world," says Muruganantham, who found he needed the permission of husbands and fathers to speak to women in rural areas of India to educate them about the importance of using pads. "Wives do not want to discuss it with their husbands or fathers. I believe that each and every woman should talk to at least two other women and convert them to using sanitary napkins. Then, in another 20 years, we can see change!"
The other reason many women do not have access to sanitary napkins is because vendors in more conservative parts are uncomfortable stocking them. And, of course, the cost of sanitary napkins makes them inaccessible to those below the poverty line. Currently classified under the miscellaneous section, instead of under health, sanitary napkins are also taxed at 12 per cent across India - a move that has recently come under fire. Just last year, nonprofit She Says started the #LahuKaLagaan (tax on blood) campaign and saw the hashtag go viral on Twitter, with many celebrities chiming in and demanding sanitary pads be tax-free.
"I recommend the government make the tax zero because by doing so, more women will use sanitary pads - and government spending on women's welfare will go down," says Muruganantham matter-of-factly, when asked about the controversial topic.
In 2006, Muruganantham demostated his machine at IIT Chennai, which registered his invention for the National Innovation Foundation's Grassroots Technological Award and helped him get seed money for the project.
Any other man would have attempted to profit from such a machine but Muruganantham is no ordinary man. Instead of selling it to organisations (who he feared would sell pads for a premium cost), he installed the machines in rural areas, conducting workshops to teach women the importance of menstrual health and showing them how to make their own pads - a move that has helped employ thousands in rural areas in the process. His machines are now available in 23 out of the 29 states in India and are also distributed to countries such as Nigeria and Bangladesh.
"India is not built by the cities but the villages. To see the real villages, you have to get off the main roads and walk for hours. This is why we work in rural areas, although any woman - even those in urban areas - can learn to use the machine," says Muruganantham. "We need more machines to be set up in rural areas and in schools and anyone can buy them and donate them so that women can make their own pads. and be empowered. The cost is peanuts for the rich."
Muruganantham hopes Pad Man will be a step towards that goal, and will inspire and educate not just women in India - but people around the world. "Find a problem in society and find a solution for it," he advises. "Every problem has an answer and if you put your mind to solving it, the world will be a paradise."