Hot Docs 2013: Interview with Amit Virmani, Director of Menstrual Man
Okay, the title of this doc makes people giggle. But after watching the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham from director Amit Virmani, the title makes perfect sense. In his quest to produce low cost sanitary pads, made by and for rural women, Muruganantham encountered more than giggles, and yet he triumphed. I sat down with Virmani to talk about his unlikely hero and the challenges of making a documentary about a topic that makes people squirm.
When asked how he came across Muruganantham and his story and why we was motivated to document it on film, Virmani makes an surprising and unlikely anaology. “It’s a fascinating story, it played like a Bollywood film,” says Virmani. “Here’s this guy who’s from poverty, he’s uneducated, from a lower social class, but he comes out a winner.”
While I would never have come up with that comparison, it makes perfect sense. But when I asked Virmani about Muruganantham’s struggle to broach a rather taboo topic – rural Indian women’s use of sanitary pads – and how he overcame that challenge, the director gently corrects me.
“The things you and I might think were his hardships, aren’t really what he thinks were his hardships,” says Virmani. “The embarrassment he was prepared for. As a matter of fact, his sister asked his wife to tell him to stop asking about her period. That he saw coming. But the classicism he faced, and still faces – that was the thing that broke his heart. Social work is the domain of the well-to-do, like a luxury. But he didn’t see it like that.”
Indeed, many doors slammed in Muruganantham’s face and he faced much ridicule. My question to Virmani was – why did he keep at it? Virmani was quick with the answer.
“He had nothing to lose,” he says. “When you’re uneducated, you’re not afraid to look foolish. When you are educated, you start being concerned with looking like you know what you’re talking about. As Muruganantham said, ‘You would look down on my anyway’ so there’s no loss in trying.”
Aside from that, Virmani also notes that they were some practical realities for Muruganantham as well, realities that might be more difficult to grasp for the Western viewer. “Given his background, he never took having a livelihood for granted,” say Virmani. “For him it was a very simple fact – you can’t take having an income for granted. So on the one hand he was tacking a huge social problem and on the other hand there was a business component. He found a very elegant solution that addressed both of those realities.”
In the course of the film, Virmani spoke to a lot of women who were deeply involved in the story. I wondered if he had to overcome any embarrassment with them.
“You would think that I would, and maybe I just got very lucky. All of the women I spoke with were part of institutions focused on the issue and helping women, and these women had really been embraced by these institutions. Talking about this subject is their job now,” says Virmani. “It’s a kind of new Indian woman – she’s done with being quiet and meek.”
“But in India we have a saying – we live in many centuries,” adds Virmani. “So when I asked one woman if I could come to her home and talk to her, she said, ‘Oh no, the family wouldn’t like that.’ So in the public space, they were very empowered, but there’s still some hesitation in some ways.”
I had one last question for Virmani. I’ve written before that I believe documentary filmmaking is the most personal kind of filmmaking. This is more evident in some documentaries than others, but I couldn’t leave without asking Virmani in what way Menstrual Man and the Muruganantham’s story is personal for him.
“Well… I didn’t expect that question,” says Virmani. “I guess, in Singapore I kind of live and work in a very affluent society. Friends, colleagues, everyone is pretty comfortable and they all want to do good. But in Muru I found that impulse but it was completely without hypocrisy. Here’s a guy who’s really doing good. I admire that.”