Some films, intentionally or unintentionally, have the ability to drag you back decades and reintroduce you to rage and fear. In recent years, three films did that to me. All of them considered over-the-top by most critics, but rang very true to their target audience. Unwittingly, I became a part of that audience.
PadMan, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, and Tamil film Appa had me rooting for the cause, despite the preachy treatment.
Watching PadMan, and reading the reviews later, I chanced upon someone who was skeptical about the extent of the stigma that was portrayed in the film – Was it that bad? Do some women really use dirty cloth and dry it the way Radhika Apte does in the movie?
I held back rage when those scenes played out on the big screen. For a few minutes, Gayatri (Radhika Apte’s character) took me back to my teenage years when I was gently asked to sit ‘alone’ at a relative’s house, not sleep on the ‘cot’, ‘not touch the clothesline’, handed over a bar of pale yellow Sunlight soap, and shown the lone clothesline in the backyard. These things happen, even in tier-2 cities. I’ve walked out of relatives’ homes simply because I did not believe in doing what was expected of a girl from my background.
I also understood Gayatri’s inability to adopt the sanitary pad. I studied in a convent-run school in Coimbatore, and if memory serves me right, representatives of a pharma company dropped by to give us all a sample pack, when we were in Class 8. A couple of girls in the class who had attained puberty accepted them gracefully. Most of us stuffed them into our lunch bags, or even boxes. It was dinned into your head that cloth was the best option, never mind if it was old, used and that was put out to dry in the dark, away from sunlight, and most importantly, from men’s eyes, susceptible to all creepy crawlies. It took my mother years to get me to adopt pads.
Even today, in many educated homes, ‘sitting out’ is bandied about like a badge of honour. A distant relative’s wedding was put off, because the groom’s family insisted she ‘sits out’ every month — to think, half their family lived abroad!
And so, for all those girls who ‘sat out’ without wanting to, whose attaining puberty was celebrated with pomp, and who suffered the consequences of touching a human or a pickle jar during ‘those three days’, PadMan is sweet revenge.
Toilet: Ek Prem Katha was loud, but sometimes you need the extra volume to be heard beyond the din of ignorance. Many people in their 40s, even if they are city-dwellers, would have made the yearly visit to their native place, where the great outdoors doubled up as the bathroom. Amid sugarcane fields, battling snakes and scorpions, girls would walk with a lota and occupy their spots, while the boys headed towards the railway tracks. Much later, when dry latrines were built, the eyes took in much horror. Another adaptation was a pit sunk at a height. Pigs would wait below, and the rest-of-the-year city slickers would opt to hold. Even today, at a time when highways have cut a swathe through villages, villagers hit the highway before the sun rises.
So yes, if Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, and, to an extent, the Tamil Joker struck a chord and forced at least 10 families to construct toilets, the films served their purpose.
Appa saw the amma in me smile and also get furious. Every self-respecting student’s pet peeve is ready-made projects. And, Appa threw the spotlight on a terrible practice in Indian academia — buying projects when you’re required to make them. The son and I would employ every available material to create a project, versus some classmates who would bring elaborately ‘bought’ equivalents. Little surprise, they scored better. All the son brought home was a tear-streaked shirt, project with an angry X mark across the sheet, and ‘stupid idea’ written neatly in a corner. If it costs Rs. 250 to ‘build’ a project, a ready-made one would cost Rs. 100.
Appa also threw the spotlight on residential schools and on the plight of children where the only God is marks. Someone wondered if the classrooms were that dingy in real life. My advice: Drive down from Salem, and you’ll be greeted by the sight of some of these non-ventilated schools where children do nothing but study. Something like a modern-day version of the cellular jail. Minimum interaction, maximum studies.
Which is why, sometimes, even when a film does not do justice to the medium, but bats for those who continue to suffer, it is time to clap. Loudly. I believe a loud film that brings about change serves better than a subtle one that goes past people.