Today, everyone respects Arunachalam Muruganantham, 52, a social entrepreneur who lives in the city of Coimbatore in South India. But there was a time, he says, when his neighbors were convinced he had lost his mind. Some even believed that he was a vampire.
"It all started because I wanted to create a good sanitary napkin for my wife," he laughs.
That was back in 1998, when Muruganantham married Shanthi Natrajan. He saw that she would use torn rags to absorb the blood during the onset of her menstrual cycle. He was shocked to find out how common this practice was. Other women in the villages around Coimbatore would use whatever was at their disposal — wrapping small mounds of ash or sand in cloth to use as absorbents.
Later that year, he began to experiment. He was intent on creating a cheaper sanitary napkin. "In the '90s, the napkins were available in Indian stores and supermarkets, but because of high production costs, they were out of reach of many," he says. And they weren't always available in rural areas.
At first, he thought he'd solved the problem when he wrapped tufts of cotton in gauze. Yet he soon realized that his handmade creation was flimsy and would disintegrate in minutes. It wasn't easy to use either, his wife told him.
But he wasn't about to give up.
Muruganantham's single-minded obsession consumed nine years of his life and nearly cost him his marriage — but culminated with the invention of a machine that could manufacture low-cost, high-quality sanitary napkins. He was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2014. In 2016, he won an Indian national award, the Padma Shri, given to civilians for their contributions to society.
And this week, a Bollywood film called Pad Man, will premiere in India. Starring matinee idol Akshay Kumar, the movie tells his story.
"I was concerned about personal hygiene and how this would affect a woman's health," says Muruganantham. "I realized that the lack of proper sanitary napkins restricted a woman's mobility and stifled her confidence."
Indeed, improper menstrual hygiene is linked with fungal infections as well as urinary and reproductive tract infections.
"It was something I was determined to help with," says Muruganantham.
A Man, A Mission, A Movie
The movie Pad Man tells the story of this 10th grade dropout, and how despite crushing difficulties and repeated failure, he succeeded in changing the lives of rural women for the better.
The son of a textile weaver, Muruganantham had spent many years working in an iron welding workshop where he found he was good with his hands and enjoyed building things.
"I believed I could manufacture cheaper sanitary napkins if I could just build a more cost-effective machine," says Muruganantham.
In the initial years, he enlisted his wife's help. "He was always making rudimentary versions of sanitary napkins for me, weaving it from cotton and cloth," says Shanthi. "At first, it was very embarrassing when he demanded my feedback."
Muruganantham was baffled by the secrecy and shame around what he viewed as a natural physiological change.
And then there were the centuries worth of menstrual taboos and superstitions to contend with. "Many women believed that they were impure at this time. Shanthi once told me that milk would curdle if she were to handle it during her period," he says.
Even today, many taboos surround menstruation in India. Women aren't allowed to enter a Hindu temple during their period. In some rural homes, they're forced to live in a makeshift room outdoors, in isolation for a week.
"I was determined to build the machine since I was convinced that proper sanitary hygiene and greater access to sanitary napkins would take the mystery out of it and help fight misconceptions," says Muruganantham. "But every time I tried, the design would be faulty and it would churn out substandard napkins." He asked his wife to test the quality of his test napkins but realized it'd take a long time to get feedback. "I had to wait a month [to test each new batch] and that slowed me down considerably," he says.
To speed up the process, he sought other volunteers. But most women were too embarrassed even to speak to Muruganantham. He approached medical students from a nearby university, thinking they'd have a more enlightened view of menstruation. They weren't keen on giving him feedback either.
And rumors were rife. "Everyone was saying such nasty things," says Shanthi. "They said he was going out with other women, that he had a perverted interest in sanitary napkins. It was a very difficult time." Misunderstandings cropped up between the couple. In 2000, Shanthi took the painful decision to leave.
In spite of his estrangement, Muruganantham continued his fervent experiments. "I couldn't allow myself to feel disillusioned. I needed to focus," he says.
It wasn't until 2002 that he was able to uncover the list of materials that went into commercially manufactured sanitary napkins. He wanted to analyze why those napkins were successful and his weren't. He learned that the commercially manufactured napkins used cellulose fibers derived from pine bark wood pulp, which allowed them to retain their shape even when wet. He included these ingredients in his own napkins.
Goat's Blood Test
Since he wasn't able to get more volunteers, he decided to test the quality of his sanitary napkins by wearing them himself. Nature hadn't given Muruganantham a womb, but he didn't let that stop him.
In 2005, he fashioned a rubber pouch, which he fixed with a holster to his hip. Then he'd pay the local butcher to deliver fresh goat's blood whenever there was a slaughter. (Goats are slaughtered more regularly than cows and pigs.) "I had to fill the pouch quickly to test the sanitary napkin, or else the blood would congeal," he says. A tube led from the rubber pouch to drip blood into the napkin he was wearing, simulating menstruation. This proved an effective way to determine if the napkins held up and didn't disintegrate. But Muruganantham reeked from the stench of animal blood. Neighbors, wondering out loud whether he was a pervert or a vampire, ostracized him.
"The isolation proved good for me," he laughs. "It helped me keep up my single-minded focus."
A Machine Is Born
In 2006, his persistence paid off. Muruganantham finally created a portable, semi-automated machine, powered by electricity, that could fit in a small space of about 11 by 11 feet and churn out two napkins a minute.
The machine functioned like a kitchen blender. It would break down fine pine wood into fluffy pulp which was then shaped into rectangular strips. These strips were wrapped in cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit.
The machine only cost about $1,500 to build. And the napkins could be sold for only 2 to 3 cents each, a tenth of the price of other commercially made napkins.
"After so many years of being shunned and avoided — people would actually cross to the opposite side of the street if they saw me coming — the recognition felt surreal at first," he says. "I could hardly believe it was happening."
In that breakthrough year of 2006, Muruganantham's machine won an award at the National Innovation Foundation of India. Later that year, he received seed funding to start constructing the machines on a larger scale. His company--Jaishree Industries-- was born. (Jaishree means 'the honor of victory') It was also the year that he reconciled with his wife, when she called him after watching him on a TV interview.
Since then, he has supplied over 4,000 machines to women in India and has shipped over 200 machines to 27 developing nations across the world.
His story gripped Bollywood actor and author Twinkle Khanna, who wrote about him in her second book — The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad — a collection of short stories. One of these fictional tales was based on Muruganatham's life.
She went on to produce the biopic Pad Man.
"My primary motivation to make a movie on menstruation was to bring awareness to a subject that so far has been tucked away in shadows and like Voldemort is never mentioned," says Khanna. "Pad Man, I am hoping, is more than a movie — it's part of a movement where women are no longer hampered, embarrassed or held back because of their biology."
Her husband, leading man Akshay Kumar plays the role of Muruganantham. He's no stranger to movies with a social agenda; he starred in Toilet — A Love Story, a 2017 movie that promoted the importance of indoor plumbing
True to the Bollywood tradition, the movie has five songs. "Aaj Se Teri" pays tribute to Pad Man's love for his wife. In "The Pad Man Song," the leading man wears a pad, just as Muruganantham once did. The lyrics say how he never had an opportunity to go to college, but now, college students are studying his work.
The song "Sayaani" covers the rituals surrounding a woman's first period in India, from pouring turmeric water over her body to applying turmeric and sandalwood paste to her cheeks. The lyrics imply that the first period is a life-changing event that should be celebrated.
Muruganantham laughs as he recalls the way he reacted when Khanna called him a couple of years ago to discuss film rights. "I didn't take her offer seriously at first. I tried brushing her off. I said I was in London on a trip, and she said, great, let's meet, because I'm in London too." And so they did.
Today, the movie has launched a viral social media campaign to get men talking about periods: The biggest Bollywood stars are posing with sanitary napkins in hand in the #PadManChallenge.
There's been some pushback, calling the campaign "a stupid marketing gimmick."
But Muruganantham is on board. In fact, he was the first to kick off this campaign on social media. "Its not about a photo," he tweets. "Its all about breaking the taboo & initiating the conversation, Period!" Pun intended!
Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, South India. Her work has appeared in The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her @kamal_t