It may be a perfectly ordinary biological process, but menstruation - much like defecation - isn't really deemed to be a fit topic for polite conversation. Isn't it far easier to simply look the other way and avoid discussing any problems or taboos associated with women getting their periods? Men, especially, have been known to be squeamish around the notion that women bleed out, oftentimes quite profusely, for up to a week every month. That makes Menstrual Man - and its director Amit Virmani and his subject Arunachalam Muruganantham - all the more interesting.
In this documentary, Virmani's camera trails after Muruganantham, an uneducated man who - according to the strict definitions of progress and achievement in modern society - should himself have fallen by the wayside. Instead, when he noticed his wife and family members collecting rags to use whenever they got their periods (an unhygienic solution to a monthly problem that could literally claim their lives), he began to think about ways to make sanitary napkins cheaper and more easily available to women in India.
Much of Menstrual Man is concerned with Muruganantham's efforts to devise a sanitary napkin that worked and was cheap to produce. It doesn't sound like it would make for very effective drama, but it actually does. In his lilting, charming way, Muruganantham explains the trouble he suffered to get to where he was determined to go. In the process of gathering data and inventing a new kind of sanitary napkin, he became an outcast in his deeply conservative rural village, losing the respect of men and women alike. Unable to find willing volunteers, he had to come up with ways to test his products himself.
As a result, the film goes far beyond its ostensible premise in depth and breadth, dealing with difficult, conflicting notions of poverty and privilege. Menstrual Man provides fascinating insights into a world it might be hard to believe still exists now - one in which money is so scarce and awareness so lacking that a vast majority of women gamble with their lives every month rather than buy the pads churned out by multi-national corporations the world over. But it also touches on gender inequality, the crippling effects of (over-)education and what one individual can do to make a difference.
Crucially, Virmani ensures that his film doesn't come across as overly preachy - at least in its first half. He peppers proceedings with lighthearted, clever ways of depicting statistics and tradition, via a mix of Indian puppetry, commentary from a stand-up comic and Muruganantham's amusing ideas about grammar and social mores. Towards the end of its relatively brief 60-minute running time, Menstrual Man sheds some of this cheeky humour. It deals with topics no less important, shifting its focus onto the heartbreaking story of one woman whose empowerment comes through working at a factory set up to produce Muruganantham's sanitary pads, but feels - oddly - less accessible thereafter.
Even so, there's no denying the weight and worth of the story being told by Virmani and Muruganantham. Smart and inspirational, funny and enlightening, brave and also a bit silly, Menstrual Man is as much a call to action as it is a documentary about menstruation. If you're lucky enough to watch this film in the comfort of a cinema, it means Muruganantham is unlikely to have changed your world - but he might come within striking distance of changing your worldview.
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