Coimbatore/Mumbai/Kolkata: He is elusive. He is moody. He doesn’t take calls but when he makes a commitment, he makes sure that he delivers. For many, who have recently woke up to a new phenomenon called – PadMan, after the official launch of Twinkle Khanna’s film production debut, we are talking about superhero of rural Indian women – Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man who made menstruation hygienic for them.
The grass root innovator
Muruganantham, a school dropout, during the conversation reveals that it was only after his marriage that he came to know about menstruation. “I often saw blood soaked clothes discarded near our toilet but never really understood where it came from. It was only after marriage that one day, my wife, explained all about it to me. It pained me a lot to know that cost factor was forcing my wife and sisters to use rags that I wouldn’t even use to clean bicycle work for their periods. This gave me the idea of designing low cost pads for them. Thus began my experiments, which almost became an obsession for me to come up with a low cost pad, which the rural India or the poor India could afford.”
Till then, a welder by profession, Muruganatham, quit his job, after getting obsessed with the idea of making a low cost sanitary napkin making machine.
The grass root innovator, who has scouted by Padma Shri Anil Gupta way back in the 2009, for having designed a low cost sanitary napkin production machine, recalls, “Even when I had won the national award in 2009, I didn’t get as many calls as I am getting today. Many publications were conservative when it came to publicizing my innovation. But by 2009, I had won many a battle in my village, from being a mad man, I was slowly being recognized as a man trying to solve an issue, which till date is a taboo.”
Not that easy path
The social stigma, his going to medical students requesting them for their used sanitary towels to study, to wearing a goat bladder filled with goat blood to test the self-designed pads, was taking a toll on his personal life. The wife that he was so besotted to soon left him and so did his mother. “They simply couldn’t understand what I was doing and why. It pained me a lot when they left me. But I also understood that I was doing something new. I was addressing an issue which no one liked to talk about. Even when my wife would be asked to give me a feedback about the pad I had designed for her, she would face the wall and answer. So they were justified. But I knew that I couldn’t also leave my research half-way through. So, even after they left me I kept innovating, till one day one of the medical students, who used to sample test my pads, said that the pads designed by me made her forget that she was having her period.”
Evolution of being called pervert to a Padma Shri winner
That was when he realized that he had tasted success. By then his machine, had also been scouted as one of the unique innovation, which had the potential changing the menstrual habits of rural India. “Professor Anil Gupta and National Innovation Foundation played major role in giving me the initial platform. However, the real turn about came when I won the Padma Shri. It was then that people and media started taking notice of me.”
He candidly states that the path that he followed was both testing and tough. However, he feels better that India, is finally ready to talk about periods. “The fact that a mainstream film is being made on me indicates that India is ready to openly talk about the menstrual health. I am also very excited about this film. I am expecting the film to carry my message to remote villages that I am yet to travel to,” he adds.
Superhero of a different sort
Muruganantham, who had to face the wrath of the society for landing up at the doors of college student, requesting for used sanitary napkins, is now the ‘padded superhero’ of women. Once shunned by his village mates, deserted by his wife and mother, is now nothing short of even being called messiah for women of rural India, who even till date use rags during those days.
“Back in the nineties, when I was trying to create a low cost sanitary towel for my wife, I had earned the image of being the village pervert. People started avoiding me. Unable to understand my mission or research, they even began stories about me being infected with some disease,” recounts Muruganantham.
The prestigious Time magazine had also listed Muruganatham among 100 Most Influential People of the world.
Tryst with Bollywood
On being asked, if he did actually make Twinkle Khanna wait for a year and a half to give a go ahead on making his biopic. He laughs and adds, “Yes, that’s true. Initially I wasn’t really convinced. But her perseverance to keep following me, her determination to make a film on this issue managed to convince me. I was in London for one of these meets on low cost sanitary napkin production when I got meet her. During our talk she managed to convince me.”
On being asked about the film’s trailer, which has been trending since its launch, he says, “I am very happy with the trailer. The film has addressed the issue in the right way, which is telling the story in a light way.” He then reveals, “The film had been initially called I Pad, but then there could have been a copyright issue, hence the film was called Pad Man.”
Interestingly, he has shared his story with Twinkle Khanna for zero fees. “I don’t want money. If I had wanted money then I could have shared by design with some company. I want to empower women through this machine. Most of the machines have been set up in villages which invited me, and I have trained the women to make sanitary towels. So in a way, it’s of women, for women and by women,” he adds.
As we wrap up, he is asked, has his family reconciled with their Pad Man? He laughs and says, “After five years of separation my mother and wife, they all came back.”