The title of the film left my friends perplexed. “I have no idea what it’s about,” said one. ”Is it about transgenders?” ventured another.
“I hope it’s not a celluloid version of a circus freak show,” hazarded a third, with extreme wariness.
Menstrual Man is Amit Virmani’s second feature documentary, following Cowboys in Paradise, 2009 (see review). It spotlights a remarkably enterprising Murugananthan in his mission to provide sanitary pads to women in his native India. A school dropout from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, his quest began almost by accident. He merely wanted to get his wife to use them.
However, in small towns and villages across the country, they were not readily available. Big manufacturers had not penetrated the market of over half a billion women, or did not think there was enough purchasing power to be worth the trouble. Only 7 percent of Indian women use sanitary pads during their periods; only 2 percent in rural areas.
Yet, traditional ways pose huge risks to the reproductive health of women. Using cloth, paper, leaves, husk, sand and who-knows-what, these aren’t particularly clean. Moreover, so many taboos surround menstruation, it is difficult for women to wash and hang out to dry the cloth that they re-use. As explained in the film, sunlight would be a good steriliser, but to hang the stained cloth out is to advertise the fact that a woman in the house is having her period; that’s just too much shame to bear.
The film begins with a bit of a disappointment. It never quite explains how someone like Murugananthan gained awareness about the importance of this. How and why did he come to care and to devote his life to the problem?
The narrative moves zippily to the story of how he tirelessly tested his early prototypes and laboured to invent simple machines for each of the four stages in making a sanitary napkin. Muru is a guy with no lack of self-confidence. “I designed my own English, and I speak it fluently,” he says, making light of his thick accent and fractured syntax.
And then the film goes off in an unexpected direction. It’s not a story of how he became wealthy selling an affordable product to tens of millions of women. In fact, I am left with the impression that he does not make the product himself, nor does it look as if he has become rich. At one point, he even says that he has turned down offers by venture capitalists.
The product too is gradually sidelined as the film proceeds.
What emerges instead is a picture of a man with a social mission, out to empower women in disadvantaged communities. Creating work for women and helping them generate income through making and selling sanitary pads within their own villages is the first step to economic uplifting. Benefits, though, accrue not just to the women, but to their children as well when they can afford school.
Menstrual Man devotes generous minutes to several women who speak about how difficult it is with old customs and taboos and the difference it has made to their lives to be part of Muru’s “social movement”, as he calls it. The manufacturing process may be low-tech and manual — each sanitary pad is individually made — but it is right for village conditions and the women are proud and happy to be involved. Giving them voice is perhaps the best part of the film.
This is a feel good film, but not of the Hollywood variety. It is one with a genuine difference, for it is based on a true story of someone from the grassroots making good. It is incredibly inspiring to see not just Muru’s ingenuity and perseverance, but to see these qualities nailed to the mast of social conscience. At the same time, the film contains an implied and troubling question: What’s with this world where a commitment to doing good is so exceptional?
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Menstrual Man will be screened at the Arts House, 14 – 21 August 2013. See details at http://www.theartshouse.com.sg/Programmes/UpcomingEvents?GenreID=23. The writer was invited to a pre-screening a few days ago.