A great film about a great Feminist hero

Published by the Alternate Dream

Menstrual Man

Directed by Amit Virmani

Singapore, India | 2012 | 63 min

Many times when I think of my Feminism, there is a tale once told to me by a comrade that I am reminded of. It was in a class of Women’s Studies taught by the well-known leftist sociologist Yosef-Ali Abazari in Tehran University. A young middle-class female student was complaining about how people in Iran were unsophisticated in their ways and how they needed to be ‘educated.’ Abazari lambasted her and went on a rant, urging her to, if she is such a good feminist, get a bag filled with sanitary napkins and take it to the rural areas of Iran.

Since hearing that, I have read about vast troubles that lack of proper feminine hygiene causes in my native Iran and many other countries in the Third World and have imagined a feminist hero as someone who would tackle this issue head-on; Especially since it escapes the radar of most petite-bourgeois feminist activists.

Virmani’s Menstrual Man is an unbelievable story of one great feminist hero who has tackled the subject in perhaps the single most difficult constituency one could imagine: Rural India, home to about two-thirds of the country’s population, the vast majority of whom live not only in crushing poverty but under the domination of some of the most backward, male-dominated social systems in the world. It is the world of Salma, another great film at Hot Docs this year.

The film follows the unlikely story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a high-school drop-out who started a project aimed at providing women of her village with sanitary napkins, as opposed to the cloths they usually use. Arun was shocked to find out his own wife and mother never use a pad because of the multi-national-made products being so expensive. He went on to find out that tens of thousands women die every year in India due to hygienic problems related to menstrual hygiene. He then started on a crusade to make accessible and affordable sanitary pads avaliable to all women in rural India. Like any well-meaning social reformer, he soon came to see what huge forces he is facing in opposition: From the multi-national corporations whose products remained out of reach for the rural poor to the backward social norms that shied away from tackling the subject and made a pariah out of him.

Arun’s story, so masterfully narrated by Virmani is one of triumph against the odds. From being shunned and left by his own wife and mother, he went on to become famous all-over India when he, in his humble workshop in Tamil Nadu, worked out a cheap machine that could produce sanitary napkins and then sold them to small cooperatives, women centers and non-profits across rural India. He rejected many offers of venture capitalists and distributers to make this a for-profit operation and insisted on it to remain the way it is. The model provides much more than menstrual hygiene. It is a factor of economic development that empowers local women with employment in an operation run by themselves and for their community without a capitalist boss.

It is clear that Arun is a great documentary subject for any one but he is very lucky in having a director as creative and resourceful as Virmani. An Indian now living in Singapore, he shows deep familiarity with the subcontinent and a beating heart for its tribulations. The film features Arun and follows him as he develops his work but also includes interviews with a range of commentators from experts on the situation of women in India to an Indian comedian making fun of the place of women’s body in the ‘honor’ of her community. He has gorgeously decorated the film with many Bollywood scenes, and what is any Indian movie without those? They not only adds a healthy dose of humor but give some social and cultural context.

Menstrual Man should be a must-watch for any revolutionary as it features one of the main battalions of the coming revolutionary battles, the women of rural India. Additionally, the film is filled with many stories that will make any socialist elated. That a high-school drop-out can use his mechanical knowledge and his commitment to people to come up with a model that Indian capitalism has so miserably failed to provide; That he also reaches a deep critique of capitalism itself, calling it a system that sucks the blood of the workers (uncannily paraphrasing Marx); That he refuses to sell-out his system to capitalists as he knows the profit would taint it; That we see a woman interviewee saying how since founding a job she no longer tolerates beatings by her abusive husband. And many other scenes and realities featured in the film.

The film is also unapologetically political and doesn’t shy away from naming the culprits. The multi-national corporations and capitalists are clearly blamed. In a moving statement, Arun remembers that, upon seeing the special treatments that politicians receive, asking someone what is it that they’ve done since 64 years of independence?

As such, Menstrual Man is not only a superficial success story but a thoughtful film that tells the dark stories that India’s much-celebrated growth accompanies – and those who have dared to fight to change it.

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