When Period. End of Sentence bagged an Academy award for the Best Documentary on Monday, Coimbatore erupted in cheers. The reason? The man behind the central idea of the documentary film, 57-year-old Arunachalam Muruganantham, was born in this Tamil Nadu city.
The film was based in Hapur, a small village in Uttar Pradesh, where Muruganantham and his team had set up a machine which churns out low-cost sanitary napkins. Speaking to TNM, hours after he got the news of the award, Muruganantham says that every award is a warning for him and his team to work more.
When Muruganantham started out with his ambition to provide low-cost sanitary napkins to women in villages in 2002, the penetration of pads in India’s villages was a mere five percent.
“When I told this to the Union and State governments, nobody believed me. They laughed at me. Everybody thought that every woman used sanitary towels but I had worked in hundreds of villages and I understood that not even five percent of women are using sanitary towels,” he says.
The government then conducted a survey, which said that 12 percent of Indian women use sanitary pads, which is a cumulative figure, he adds.
“India is not just 14 or 20 cities. India is built by seven lakh villages and I knew that only five percent of the women in villages used pads,” he explains.
His initiative to provide low cost sanitary napkins using the machine he has developed, the story of which was even made into a Bollywood film starring Akshay Kumar and called Padman, has increased awareness on menstrual hygiene and led to an increase in the penetration of sanitary pads in India’s hinterlands.
“Recently, we measured the penetration of sanitary pad usage in villages and it stood at 35 percent. In 18 years, it has grown multifold, from five percent into 35 percent,” he adds.
Journey into the Oscars
Muruganantham's life journey is widely documented. However, he wanted to shed light on the status of women in one of the villages where his team had set up a low-cost sanitary pad machine, and he thought that a documentary would help talk in depth about the problem and the taboos openly.
“When the director came to me and said that the team wanted to make a documentary on me, I said that there are hundreds of documentaries on me, but suggested why not make it about our unit. We have a unit in Uttar Pradesh, in a village called Hapur. It is very backward village, where when a girl child is born, she is killed. That is where we had set up a machine. So we documented the problems faced by the women there in relation to menstrual hygiene, problems with the men, their brothers and uncles from day one of the machine’s installation,” he explains.
Life after the Academy award
Talking about how an award of such international repute will impact his ambition, Muruganantham says that it would make more people take notice of the issue concerned.
“A domain which is not given importance by the world will be noticed by the world when it wins the Nobel Prize. The same is happening here now. Menstrual hygiene is a hidden area, nobody is bothered about it. Now since we have got the Oscar award, the whole world is looking into the matter, and the awareness about the importance of menstrual hygiene will increase,” he points out.
He also expresses confidence that the Academy award will help make India a hundred percent sanitary napkin-using country.
He credits the director of the film, Iranian-American filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi, for its success.
“I just gave the idea. Credit for everything else goes to the director and the team. The credit for the Oscar award goes to the team, the director and the producer. There is no doubt about it,” he asserts.
Adding that society is slowly turning into a more aware one, Muruganantham says that the younger generation is now aspiring to create social change around them.
“Earlier, people had a routine life of studying, getting a job, earning money and getting married. Now students, once they finish studying want to do something social, they want to make a social achievement,” he says.
He also shares that the Delhi state education board has approached him for permission to feature his life in the syllabus for the Entrepreneurship Mindset Curriculum (EMC) for Classes 9 to 12.
Adding that nothing changes for him as a person after the award, Muruganantham points out that every award is an added responsibility for him and his team.
“After the Oscar, the responsibility on my team and I for developing menstrual hygiene in India is more. Every award is a warning for us to become more efficient. In social entrepreneurship, every day is my first day,” he signs off.
(With inputs from Sudhakar Balasundaram)