Menstrual Man: From pulp to pad in rural India

Review Documentary
63 minutes/Opens on 14th August/Rating: 4.5/5

The story: Singapore documentary film-maker Amit Virmani tells the story of self-taught engineer Arunachalam Muruganantham. The man from the city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu state has invented machines that make sanitary napkins from readily available wood pulp. The pads, sold much cheaper than industrially made products, are helping women in rural India make the switch from rags, which are a source of disease. Instead of selling the machines to profit-making companies, he sells them only to village cooperatives run by women.

Sanitary pad and tampon commercials are often mocked for a couple of traits, among them how the products themselves are glimpsed only briefly and that their job seems to be to soak up a thin blue fluid poured from a glass beaker.

The advertisements reflect the taboos around menstruation that exist in society, but in parts of rural India, women have to put up with the double indignity of being seen as spiritually polluted during the days of their periods, with the shame preventing them from keeping themselves clean. Most use and re-use rags, which they cannot wash and dry properly because the cloths are literally the dirty laundry that cannot be aired in public.

The rural women have either never heard of disposable pads or, if they have, cannot afford them because, as one interviewee in this film puts it, "anything we buy for ourselves means less food for the children". The cloths, teeming with bacteria, cause myriad health problems.

If viewers can put aside squeamishness about the topic - and see past the title - this work will move, inform and, more surprisingly, entertain.

Local documentary-maker Amit Virmani made waves three years ago when he released Cowboys In Paradise (2009), a wink-free, even-handed look at the business that goes on when rich Western and Japanese women meet poor Balinese men. It garnered awards, got a few of the men hauled up by the Indonesian police and won Virmani a degree of notoriety.

That same curiosity about a subject most would rather not talk about informs this work. Virmani is the dogged and invisible observer, following Arunachalam Muruganantham around India as he gives talks and set up machines.

The director gets touching interviews from mothers who are abandoned by abusive husbands and who, with the help of the napkin-making machines, now earn money and, with it, self-respect.

It is not all po-faced liberal-guilt seriousness, though. Virmani cheekily inserts vintage Bollywood clips to illustrate bits that would otherwise be shots of talking heads.

But the most entertaining segments come from interviews with the charismatic inventor himself. He is a natural-born raconteur, a savant of speech, his own best myth-maker and a man who speaks a machine-gun version of English which - like his machines - he fashioned himself. Thankfully, there are subtitles.


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