It’s clear that R Balki is deeply admiring of A. Muruganantham, the man who has inspired the protagonist in his film, Pad Man . “He is a lateral man. His way of thinking fascinates me,” says the filmmaker about the man at the heart of Pad Man . As he settles down after a quick smoke in between interviews to talk about the film which releases this Friday, Balki recalls the time when A. Muruganantham had told him that to be famous one did not necessarily have to make money. While a lot of people would want to be a part of the 100 richest lists brought out by Forbes each year, his aim was to figure out, to put it in his own inimitable style, “how to be famous by being [a] pauper”.
In fact, Balki describes how the revolution in rural menstrual hygiene in India that Muruganantham started was driven solely by the latter’s need to help people. Anxious for his wife’s safety and unable to afford a pad for her use, Muruganantham devoted all his attention towards building a machine that could dispense affordable products. “He went to create the pad that he could not buy,” observes the filmmaker.
Muruganantham’s business model however did not allow him to make money, Balki informs. If he started making profits, the very purpose of his enterprise would be defeated as the sanitary napkins that he had been instrumental in making available to women at low costs would become expensive. The fact that in a world obsessed with commerce a man had built his life, career and reputation around not making money, indeed his renown altogether depended on it, was a deeply compelling point for the director.
Initially though, when Twinkle Khanna and Akshay Kumar initially came to him with the project, Balki was hesitant. Having preferred always to write his own stories and somewhat wary of biopics, he was eventually drawn in only by the fact that nowhere in the world had a film on menstrual hygiene or pads been made. While Khanna was working on an adaptation of the story for her book The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad , Balki and writer Swanand Kirkire set about adapting it for film with the result that they ended up around the same time with two creative renditions of one man’s life.
“I always saw Akshay in the film,” says Balki even before I can ask if he considered casting anyone else in the central role. What made him suitable for the part were not just his abilities as an actor but also the sheer simplicity which he could lend to a character. The filmmaker goes on to commend his other cast members but is quick to note that a film is always the product of teamwork and never a one-person-driven affair.
Arriving at the subject of his own career and Pad Man ’s place in his filmography, Balki feels that as compared to his previous works, the new feature by virtue of its story and setting reaches out to the sensibilities of a lot more people. Films like Cheeni Kum and Paa were set in urban spaces whereas the story here took him to the grassroots. It deals with common problems, speaks the language of the people and hence promises to have a greater appeal as well as impact.
Speaking of the social activism film which has been on the rise in Indian cinema and which has attempted in the recent past to not only spread awareness but also break taboos and open dialogues about subjects people usually shy away from, Balki recalls how during his advertising days, he had started a trend of social advertising linked to brands. It had begun with Lifebuoy with the visual of a boy cleaning the streets in a dirty neighbourhood and had then been taken up by brands like Idea and Tata Tea with the ‘Jaago Re’ campaign. This practice of bringing together social causes and entertainment with brand messages had started in advertising long ago. Films too have dealt with this idea in the past, remarks Balki, but it became a visible trend only following its success in advertising. As people became more socially conscious, they realised that rather than blindly consuming products at random, they needed to support brands which were also giving to the community in some way. The idea steadily seeped into films and audiences became keener on entertainment which came with a sense of responsibility. “ Pad Man is a mix of that,” states the filmmaker. “It is entertainment for a good cause”.
Balki has always wanted to make feature films, he assures, when I ask him about the possible difficulties of transitioning into the 35mm format. “It was the other way around,” he insists, “I had to do transition from a three-hour mindset to a 30-second mindset”. When people watch an ad, he explains, they process information in a way that is different from when they watch a film. A message that may seem too long for an ad can end up seeming short and abrupt for a feature. In a film it will fail to have the same impact as the medium demands more space. It requires the message to be fleshed out, to be treated with more emotion. Each medium entails a specific mindset with which the audience approaches it and a filmmaker who is also at the end of the day an audience member has to tailor the communication accordingly.
Finally, we come to the subject of Pad Man ’s music which is composed by Amit Trivedi – a first for Balki who has worked with Ilaiyaraaja on all his previous directorial ventures. The filmmaker’s abiding admiration for the Tamil composer is well-known and when asked about choosing Trivedi for Pad Man , he replies after great thought. “The sounds of this film were particular to a certain region,” he notes. He feels that Trivedi, who he worked with closely during the making of Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish which he produced, is possibly the most original music composer in Bollywood today. “The background score is remarkable”, he observes stating that Trivedi has lent a fresh sensibility and a distinct identity to the film.
The filmmaker does emphasise though that his creative tuning with Ilaiyaraaja continues, with discussions on every project with the legendary composer, and regular visits to his studio.