Amit Virmani’s “Menstrual Man” tells the fascinating story of an uncommon man and his unconventional methods

Arunachalam Muruganantham’s revolution started at home. On learning that his wife Shanti used rags to manage her periods, he asked her why she couldn’t buy sanitary pads from a shop instead. “If I start using sanitary pads then we have to cut our family milk budget,” she told him.

Shanti isn’t alone. According to a statistic, only one in 10 Indian women use sanitary pads. The majority use unhygienic substitutes, which account for about 70 per cent of all reproductive diseases. Once Muruganantham identified the problem, he resolved to find a solution for it. It started him off on his journey of innovating low cost sanitary napkins for rural women.

The journey, with its highs and lows, forms the subject of a documentary called Menstrual Man, which was screened recently at the Dharamsala International Film Festival. Director Amit Virmani, who has previously made a documentary titled Cowboys in Paradise, on the male sex trade in Bali, Indonesia, found Muruganantham serendipitously, much before he went viral. “One day a friend sent me an article, one or two paras on a blog really, and that was it…I tracked down Muru’s email address, wrote to him saying I was interested and he said ‘come on let’s talk’. Two weeks later I was in Coimbatore face to face with him,” the director recalls.

A ninth-standard dropout, Muruganantham credits his lack of education for his resolve. Most use education as a tool only to survive, he tells us, and not to achieve something. Free of its trappings, Muru could realise his vision. Several trials and errors later, he did.

When his search for volunteers to test his innovation proved futile, he became his own guinea pig. The whole village believed he had a sexual disease. His wife thought he was using his research to speak to and lure women, and left him soon. His mother followed suit, thinking he was a pervert. But an unperturbed Muruganantham soldiered on, and devised a machine that could enable rural women to create world-class napkins in a cost-effective manner. Eventually, his wife and mother returned too.

Murugananatham’s interview is interspersed with footage from old Bollywood films. “If you look at Muru’s story, there’s so much melodrama in it. His story just comes across as a Bollywood film,” Virmani explains. These scenes are the perfect foil for Muruganantham’s self-deprecatory humour, which, coupled with his “designer English”, gives the film much of its charm. For instance, when Muru gets a call one day, asking him if he supplies his machines to the bottom of the pyramid, he declines politely, for he supplies only in India and not Egypt.

Despite his lack of education, Muru has a sharp business acumen and a colourful lexicon for it. His is the “butterfly model” of business, different from the parasitic one of big corporations. Contrary to a large-scale production model which requires Rs.3.5 crores as initial investment, Muruganantham’s sanitary napkin-making machine can be made available to a buyer for approximately Rs.75,000, informs his website. His aim is not to scale up, but to “scale deep”; at last count, he had sold well over 800 machines, which are being used to empower women in rural areas across several districts in Tamil Nadu and beyond.

Since the making of the film, much has changed for its director. Virmani says, “There is this misconception that you have to give back to society once you’ve accumulated your fair measure of wealth and comfort. One thing I have learnt from Muru is that you never have to wait that long.” For Muruganantham, however, things are the same. Presented with the option of being flown in to Dharamsala for the film festival, he declined, and asked for the money to be donated towards installing his machine in another village.