A black London cab with a chipped license plate was parked outside R. Balki’s office in IMPAA House on Pali Hill. This used to be the HQ of the Indian Motion Pictures Producers’ Association. They shifted to Lokhandwala. And Balki moved his ‘hope’ productions’ office here. Beside the entrance stood three large posters of his Friday release PadMan. I’d seen the London cab before. Majestically motoring down Linking Road. Like it was in Oxford Street, London. But I didn’t know it was Balki’s. “I always loved this car,” he told me later with a shy smile. “It’s the only thing I actually wanted to possess. I don’t have ambitions of acquiring houses and going on holidays. The three things I like are the London cab, my black clothes, and cricket.”
Coming from somebody as hugely successful and widely renowned as he is, this was surprising. But Balki’s an extraordinary man. In his office, among several other curious objects of conversation, is a cricket bat signed for him by Rahul Dravid.
Balki surprised me again by saying, “I want to see every cricket ground in the world. I’ve seen 50 per cent of them. In England, I’ve covered everything. Also in South Africa and Sri Lanka. In Australia, I’ve seen most of them. And there’s only Christchurch left in New Zealand. I saw one ground in Bangladesh. One or two remain in India; the problem is there are so many playing centres here. But I haven’t been to the West Indies and Pakistan yet.”
I liked him immediately. But I wasn’t there to discuss cricket with Balki. Nor the London cab. And his black clothes. The ‘hope’ office is like somebody’s cozy home. Full of character. The rooms with whitewashed, unfinished walls open into one another. A narrow staircase leads down to the edit set-up. There’s mismatched but comfortable furniture everywhere.
Paintings on the walls and lamps light up corners. Every room has posters of his films and photo-frames of pictures taken on the sets. Amitabh Bachchan, who plays the lead in three of Balki’s seven films and makes a guest appearance in two others, is in many. Two frames are for Sean Connery’s James Bond films From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. We talked in his office. About PadMan, naturally. Me, holding a mug of coffee. He, a cigarette. Spectacles pushed back on his head.
Excerpts from our conversation:
Q. Arunachalam Muruganatham met Twinkle Khanna two years ago but didn’t part with the rights of his story till you both met him together. What happened? Did you play the Tamil card with him? Or was he uncomfortable dealing with a woman?
A. No, no, nothing like that. He’s been so misunderstood. He wanted to get the feeling that we understood the core of his character. Which is not so much about him wearing a sanitary pad, winning a gold medal, and making the machine. He wanted to know if we really got what drove him. Whether we understood his way of thinking, what the real problem was, why he went about doing what he did. He wanted to communicate. And he was comfortable talking to Tina. He’s dealt with women most of the time. He didn’t even want to talk to Akshay Kumar. When I sent word I wanted to meet him, Muruganatham was happy. He’s not a great film watcher. But he studied who I was. And he was fascinated that Tina and I wanted to do two different adaptations of his life. We met at his workshop. From there he took us to his house. Before going, he signed several blank cheques and left them behind. I asked, why. Wasn’t he afraid of being swindled? Muruganatham replied, “I don’t have money to pay an accountant. My suppliers come, take what they want and go. I have no money in the bank. What can they take?” When Tina and I left for the airport, Muruganatham asked us to drop him off at an engineering college where he was giving a lecture. He was dressed in his grease-stained white workshop clothes. I asked him why he didn’t wear black. He said, “What’s the point? People won’t know I work. I’m not a manager. I’m a labourer. They must know I’m labouring.”
Akshay didn’t become the character but brought something of himself to the character that Muruganatham didn’t have. He knew the power of Akshay Kumar and when to use it an when not to.
Q. So you got insights to the man?
A. Insights after insights after insights. He knew I was an advertising person. He asked me, “Why are marketing people so foolish? They make ads on sanitary napkins, spend crores, to show women smiling in their offices during their periods, jumping over fences, playing sports, giving each other high-fives, running after buses. How is it even possible? Women are in real pain. Their discomfort exists. The pad is not going to magically cure them. It’s about hygiene. Women use a dirty cloth, ash, leaves and other material during their periods that they don’t wash and dry properly. Germs come and infect them. The purpose of the pad is hygiene. Why isn’t any big brand talking about hygiene? If I had the money to advertise, I would. Most brands are only concerned about which sanitary pad absorbs better.” I was awed by his logic. I had never thought about this.
Q. What did you see in him?
A. I was searching for a love story in Muruganatham’s life. I always wanted more than the revolution and inspiration. And there is a fascinating love story. It’s to do with his wife. The woman was so ashamed of what he was doing that she almost separated from him. I felt sorry for her. Not him. Having grown up in that village, in that environment, imagine how much she must have suffered because of lack of understanding. She loved him as much as he loved her. But she couldn’t take the pain. She was unable to handle the shame. I saw it from her angle.
Muruganatham was happy there were two different versions of his life. For instance, Sonam Kapoor’s character doesn’t exist in his life. Yet, 90% of PadMan is what he thought; 10% has come from the writers.
Q. And you wrote PadMan from this? Twinkle did The Sanitary Man?
A. We didn’t write it together. But simultaneously. And differently. They are different stories. The commonality is Muruganatham’s life. Tina and I interpreted it differently. Mine is a love story. Hers is the journey of the man. They are two takes on Muruganatham’s life. We discussed our work. But never knew what each other’s book and script was about. When we finished, we found they were completely different. It was a great creative exercise. It was Tina’s vision to make this film. But the film was written by Swanand Kirkire and me. And we wrote it in Maheshwar, which is where we shot PadMan in Madhya Pradesh. Tina spent a week with us because she hadn’t seen a film being written before. We were lucky to have her. She was a fresh mind. Tina used to sit in her room writing her book every evening. And Swanand and I would work on the script in the morning. She used to tell me what she was writing and she was a part of what we were writing. But only for a week. Then Tina went away and focused on the book and we on the script.
Q. What about Akshay? And Muruganatham?
A. Oh, Akshay contributed phenomenally to the script. He’s a very sensitive man. And he would quietly and simply suggest, “Why don’t you do it that way instead of like this?” As for Muruganatham, he wasn’t confused that two people were working on his life, he was happy there were two different versions of his life. For instance, Sonam Kapoor’s character doesn’t exist in his life. But I told him, “My job is not to be true to your character in the film. Or to whatever you’ve done. My job is to make sure even you wish you had led a life like this!” That’s the trip of a film. The person on whom it is based should wish he had thought of all this. Yet, 90 per cent of PadMan is what he thought; 10 per cent has come from the writers.
Q. Why not simply adapt Twinkle’s book?
A. Adapting a book makes me nervous. The person living has led a fantastic life. Will a film do justice to it? But I did PadMan because I met Muruganatham and found him fascinating. More importantly, nobody in the world had ever done a commercial mainstream film on menstrual hygiene and sanitary pads. Not even as a documentary. And to do it as a love story? I quickly lost all nervousness! I like to write my own story. It drives me to go through the one year it takes to make a film. It’s nothing but the thought that starts a film. In this case the thought was already there in Tina’s concept. As a writer the origin of the thought is very important to me. The core of this film had been written by Muruganatham. I used my expertise to write a proper screenplay. But the joy of writing a film is in creating characters for my story. For instance, let’s say somebody has climbed Mount Everest, I won’t do a film on them because this is their story. Not mine. In my story, I like to create characters living a life I wish I had led. Not the one I was living. I don’t want incidents that have happened. I like to portray life as people wish it was.
I was searching for a love story in Muruganatham’s life. And there is a fascinating love story. It’s to do with his wife.
Q. Was Muruganatham in agreement with your story?
A. I don’t think he’s the kind to fully read a book or script. He trusted me to bring his life to screen in a way that would take his case further. I took him through the whole film. He said, “I have only one point to make. Don’t document my life. Make it an enjoyable film. People should laugh when they see it. They should cry. A film’s supposed to do that. This film should not do justice to my life. It should do justice to the many people who pay to come to the theatres and watch it. If you don’t entertain them, people will get bored of my journey. Help me with my cause by not making it boring. Let us make life enjoyable.”
Q. Muruganatham had a story that Twinkle, Swanand and you told. What did Akshay bring to it?
A. Akshay’s done something special. Not noble. It’s easy for an actor to look at the person he has to portray and copy him. Muruganatham’s mannerisms are ingenious and distinctive. But Akshay didn’t do that. He understood the character’s soul, his purity, and interpreted each mannerism in his own way. Akshay didn’t become the character but brought something of himself to the character that Muruganatham didn’t have. He did that just with his body language and the way he talked. He knew the power of Akshay Kumar and when to use it an when not to. He pitched Muruganatham’s character so naturally. If a director gets the right actors, 90 percent of his work is done. A director can write what he wants, design the set, shoot however he chooses to… but if the actors don’t perform in that pitch, the director’s dead. Akshay brought my script to life. Sonam and Radhika Apte too were very clear that they came on board to make an entertaining film on a cause. Not as feminists to portray that cause. They are the pillars of PadMan. I could not do the film without these three actors.
Muruganatham said, “Don’t document my life. Make it an enjoyable film. This film should not do justice to my life. It should do justice to the many people who pay to come to the theatres and watch it.”
Q. As an advertising man, was it easy selling this cause?
A. I brought sensitivity to the story. I could have shown it in a bold way that would make a bunch of elite filmmakers applaud and win awards at a film festival abroad. But I’m not here to make bold and brave statements. I’m here to make people who are not aware and are living in darkness believe in things they never believed in before. I’m not here to fascinate the converted. My job is to convert. That’s my language of cinema. I learned it in advertising. It’s not about showing off what a great ad you can make or what a lateral idea it can be. The ad is meant to talk to people it’s intended for. So this is a film that has depth, it has sensitivity, but all in a fun way the real grassroots people can understand.
Q. What kind of cinema do you enjoy yourself?
A. I see films as a viewer. Not as a filmmaker. And I love mad films! The Rowdy Rathore and Welcome kind. I tell Akshay, “Your best film for me is not Airlift, it’s Rowdy Rathore!” He laughs. But really, it’s damn tough to do this film. I wish I had the talent to do a film like Welcome. How do you write it? It’s bizarre! Utterly mad! Yet, it’s got a graph, it’s got a high, it’s got a low. I salute people who do these kind of films.”