Made in India

Amit Rai

Amit Rai  

In his ‘Made in Ulhasnagar’ jeans and shirt, it is easy to ignore Amit Rai in the gathering of the country’s emerging filmmakers, but when his work unspools on the projector, it is hard to take your eyes off the screen.

Those who took the Road to Sangam with Amit in 2010 will vouch for his ability to find an extraordinary character in ordinary lives. The story of mechanic Hashmatullah, who was entrusted with the task of repairing the wagon that took Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes to Triveni Ghat, continues to be relevant in times when composite culture needs a fresh coat.

At the investor’s pitch in Film Bazaar in Goa this year, Amit pitched a film that makes us ask what ‘Make in India’ should be all about.

On the surface I’ Pad is about the entrepreneurship of an ordinary Indian who wants to make the life of his better half easier by making affordable sanitary pads, but in the process, the film comments on the market, which doesn’t allow access to 70 per cent of Indian women to lead a life of dignity, just because they can’t afford the expensive pads made by the multinationals. “And nobody is talking about it,” says Amit.

Coming from a lower-middle-class family in Mumbai, Amit is the first generation of filmmakers who have got access to the camera, and they are eager to tell their story. “For long, we have been stereotyped in films. Now that we are on the other side of the lens, we want to put forth our point of view, and it is going to knock off many established notions.”

Amit has seen the market’s ability to bulldoze over small business from close quarters. “My father was a mill worker, and like many families, we suffered when the mills were shut down in Mumbai. I don’t go to Phoenix mall because it is built over the graves of many a mill worker. They have retained the insignia of the chimney, as if making fun of the common mill worker.”

Amit maintains he has no problem with the big players in the market, but it should not be at the cost of the indigenous work force.

“In Ulhasnagar, a pair of jeans is available for Rs.300, but the market doesn’t support the local manufacturer. The tribals who produce honey can’t buy their own product from the market, as organic products have become very expensive. They have to buy a branded product which is not pure. Similarly, the market has turned something that every woman needs every month into something elitist.”

Amit was inspired by the story of A. Muruganantham from Coimbatore, who made a low-cost machine for sanitary pads, after braving a long struggle with family and society. “I met him and told him about the idea of making a film on the subject. I have set the film in Bhopal, a city known for entrepreneurial talent. It is a city which stood up on its feet after the biggest gas tragedy in the world.”

‘I’ Pad is the story of Natraj, who is a local Newton for his assistant Pencil, but for his wife Saavi, he is somebody who lacks focus.

“An incident leads him to decide to make a local sanitary pad which his wife can afford. Like most housewives, she puts household needs above her hygiene and Natraj wants to find a solution. During the course of his research, he discovers that only 7 per cent of the women in rural areas have access to commercial sanitary pads. He gets started, but where should he test his product? His wife thinks he has either gone mad or it is an excuse to meet younger women; his mother feels he is under some supernatural influence, and it leads to some tragic-comic situations. Which man would have the audacity to ask unacquainted women about their period dates? Desperate for feedback, he goes to a prostitute and she brands him a pervert.”

Ultimately, Amit says, Natraj tries it on himself by creating a makeshift uterus and filling it with goat’s blood. “Natraj goes about his life for a day, occasionally squeezing the contraption to test his latest creation. However, after just a few hours, the discomfort and stench make him realise, for the first time, the magnitude of the challenge he has taken upon himself.” However, the experience strengthens his resolve. He realises the difference between cotton and cellulose, and goes the jugaad way to create a machine that delivers a sanitary pad whose absorption power is as good as those available in the market, but is affordable.

Amit says he knew with such a story there is always a chance of slipping into the outrageous territory. “I feel I have managed to strike a balance, and the drama will tug at your heart with its earnestness.” For Amit, it was always a story of the market and he is glad that his mentors at Film Bazaar got the point. “Female mentors related with the problem, but when Marco Mueller, former director of Rome Film Festival, asked him ‘Are you trying to tell me India should stand on its own feet? Have you made a film on Make in India?’” Amit says he realised he had made something which has a universal appeal.

“For it is nowhere explicitly said in the film.” He has already got invitations from several film festivals, including Berlin. “The real test, however, will be when the women who have no access to sanitary pads watch it.”

The making of a filmmaker

Amit’s own story is no less interesting. Hailing from Eastern Uttar Pradesh, his father was a mill worker. In good days, he lent some money to a Muslim friend, who ran away to Saudi Arabia. “We had almost given up, when one day, he returned with a lot of gifts, and one of them was a VCR. As we had no television set at home, my father went to the neighbourhood electronics shop to sell it. The shopkeeper knew that he was out of a job and advised him to buy a television on instalments and start the business of a video parlour. My father liked the idea and roped me into it.” He didn’t know what he was getting into. “I got hooked to films, and soon could tell how and when the next scene will be cut,” recalls Amit. “I was also doing theatre and cleared the entrance test of the National School of Drama, but my father was against the idea of going to Delhi and asked me to find an alternative career.”

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