IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Meet the Menstrual Man

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 14, 2013

Calling your documentary Menstrual Man is not the smartest marketing move in the world, some say of Singapore-based film- maker Amit Virmani's decision to bestow that title on his work.

One critic for the American Public Broadcasting Service website, while praising the quality of the content, says that when it comes out on DVD, it "isn't going anywhere near Walmart shelves" because of its "ick factor".

Virmani, 39, says he can see why distributors and writers think the title is a turn-off. But he is sticking to his guns.

"I'm surprised at the number of people from affluent countries who are squeamish about the title. But even if I called it The Pastry Chef, anyone seeing it will know within 20 seconds what the film is about. I can't hide from that," he says, with an exasperated note in his voice.

Worse, using euphemisms would be to betray the values the film is trying to encourage, he says.

"The fact that people are afraid to talk about it is a big part of the problem of women's hygiene in rural India. It is why awareness is so low. The film celebrates the people who have shrugged off that taboo. If I changed the title because educated people might not watch the film, then I'm a hypocrite. I become part of the problem," he says.

The problem he is referring to are social sanctions surrounding menstruation in rural India. Sanitary napkins are either too expensive or unavailable in many villages. Women use and re-use rags which are washed and dried furtively, because everything surrounding menstruation is considered spiritually unclean. The rags teem with bacteria, which cause infections.

Enter self-taught engineer Arunachalam Muruganantham, 50, from the city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. He saw the problems his wife was having during her periods and decided to do something about it.

In 2006, the man who dropped out of school at grade eight invented machines to make cheap sanitary pads out of low-cost raw materials and sold them to women's groups in India's villages, providing female workers with an income.

He quickly became a celebrity on the global development organisation circuit, winning awards at home and abroad, while giving talks to the public and the media. That was when Virmani read about the man. He e-mailed the inventor, who invited the film-maker to a meeting in Coimbatore.

"I had my doubts. No matter how great a story is, it might not work as a film. Maybe he won't be good on camera," says Virmani.

A two-week trip to Coimbatore later, he knew that Muruganantham had "the charisma to be the leading man".

With the help of a grant from the Media Development Authority, he spent close to five months in India, shadowing the man and speaking to women who the machines have helped.

Working alone, he slept in hostels and in friends' homes as he travelled across India with Muruganantham, mostly by bus.

The result is the documentary, selected to be among the audience favourites at this year's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

Virmani, who is single, is no stranger to provocative topics. His first feature-length documentary, Cowboys In Paradise (2009), detailed the culture of men in Bali who see foreign women as a way out of poverty. It created debate in Indonesia and led to the police questioning a group of Balinese men.

For Menstrual Man, his second feature documentary, Virmani was able to introduce elements that he could not in Cowboys. Among them was the use of footage from Bollywood films, courtesy of a friend who owned the rights. The clips add a fun, cheeky touch to segments in which experts discuss the plight of poor rural women.

"Audiences might think, 'Oh, it's about menstruation, it's going to be dreary'. Maybe it's just my style. But I don't think you have to be didactic to beat people with a serious message. Sometimes, it's more effective to lighten things up," he says.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 14, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/