By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, Dec 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bollywood has an unlikely new superhero - bravely fighting taboos and discrimination faced by women during their periods with a unique weapon: the sanitary pad.
The trailer of "Padman", unveiled over the weekend ahead of the movie's release in January, shows one of Hindi cinema's most popular action heroes, Akshay Kumar, wear a sanitary pad and talk about menstrual hygiene, creating a conversation around a topic rarely discussed in India.
"I am hopeful that something that has been hidden in the darkness ... will finally be in the spotlight so that a young girl can go up to her parents and say that she needs sanitary pads over the ubiquitous fairness creams," said Twinkle Khanna, who wrote about the real-life Padman in a book and produced the film.
"After writing the book, the obvious way to get this inside the consciousness of both modern and rural India seemed to be through a movie, and here we are today," she said in an email interview.
For many Indian women, especially adolescent girls, menstruation is shameful and uncomfortable. From being barred from religious shrines to dietary restrictions to a lack of toilets and sanitary products, they face many challenges when they have their periods, campaigners say.
"I did not personally face these taboos," Khanna said.
"But some of my friends in boarding school faced several. Not allowed to enter temples or (the belief) that touching the pickle would make it sour were some of the age-old myths that were ingrained in them since day one."
In a departure from formulaic Hindi cinema plots, "Padman" will be India's first feature film focused on menstrual hygiene.
The film is inspired by the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham - the man who started out by wanting to "please his wife" by replacing her rag cloth with a sanitary pad.
His wife's response that buying a sanitary pad would cut into their milk budget set Muruganantham on the mission to provide low-cost pads to women across India.
"I'm thrilled because the movie talks about a difficult subject in an entertaining manner and it will reach out to the masses," the inventor of the low-cost sanitary pad making machine told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The film captures his trials with making a cheap sanitary pad, his experiment with wearing one and using animal blood to test if it leaked and the hostile reaction of his community for talking openly about menstruation.
A school drop out, Muruganantham now runs a company in Coimbatore in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, supplying women with sanitary pads in 4,500 villages and providing technology for his low cost hygiene products to 19 other countries.
"The trailer of this film has generated a buzz around periods," said Kavya Menon of Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective, also in India's south.
"We hope the conversations will also lead to discussions on what sanitary pads are made of, safe disposal and sustainable menstruation."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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