'Parts of PadMan look like a Vicco Turmeric commercial, parts of it look like a Tourism Ad and parts of it like a commercial for Etihad Airlines. But almost all of it, unmistakably, sounds like one big town-hall message,' says Sreehari Nair.
Akshay Kumar conserves his energy through four-fifths of PadMan's length and then breaks into a long riff.
This is not an old, slowing, athlete getting by on his considerable secondary skills: His lore or his experience. This is an actor willing to give you 77 false notes because he knows he can hook you with that one tried-and-tested note at the end.
For the long riff here is the stuff of every actor's wet dream. And most importantly, it's Akshay Kumar’s safety net.
Suddenly, he is the noble, uncouth fool up on a stage (a lecture at the United Nations no less), and he's offered a chance to demonstrate what a simple genius he really is.
Genius but an uncomplicated one. A bum among executives. The successful soul who is also a man of the soil. Who can possibly hate that type?
To those burdened by the formal tone of management speeches, Kumar's riff -- soaked in spit and emitted in mangled English with his voice constantly on the edge of tearing up -- would feel like the real thing.
The mood of the movie turns gay; a trifle nauseating but gay.
Never mind the false notes. Never mind the obligatory nature of his performance. With that one scene, Akshay has redeemed himself.
This is a character that spends a good part of the movie smiling like sillypants and who still gets asked by Sonam Kapoor: 'Why can't you smile once in a while?'
This is a character that when he stiffens up or acts hurt, evokes laughter rather than empathy. And yet, as the noble fool delivering a straight-from-the-heart talk at an international assembly it's hard to not love Lakshmikant Chauhan.
All that energy conservation for that one big flourish -- sure it makes good business sense.
But not every actor in PadMan is driven to such 'economical acting.'
Amitabh Bachchan, for instance, appears as himself and director R Balki, in his over-enthusiasm to please his 'superhero', designs the worst version of the star yet.
Bachchan, who ipso facto can light up any gathering with that magical combination of shyness and measured self-deprecation, takes to the stage and talks like an absolute boss. It made me wince to think that he sounded exactly like a politician selling his soul!
Then there's Sonam Kapoor as Pari who lets her upper body lapse into an intense state of paroxysm in a bid to convince us that she is an expert tabla player. Wham-Bam, not happening Ma'am!
To expect any sort of deftness from R Balki -- the most sterilised, sanctimonious, and styleless of our directors -- is to wish for a perfect alignment of your stars, but Balki's sin here is greater: He fails to first and foremost grasp the essence of the tale at hand.
The story of Arunachalam Muruganantham (Press-Kit Title: The Real PadMan), is actually an extravagantly insane story and that it happens to be true makes it more so.
Muruganantham, who gives anti-self-help lectures at venues set up exclusively for self-help talks, is a man not given to cheap, exploitative renderings of his own life-narrative.
He often pitches himself as someone who'd set out to find a solution to a personal problem (his wife would not use a sanitary napkin but a rag-cloth during her menstrual cycle) and who in the course of that journey got a chance to ignite his own entrepreneurial spirit.
'Why did I try to make my version of a sanitary pad? Because I wanted to impress my wife,' says Muruganantham, plainly.
Now, if you have ever heard Twinkle Khanna talk about Arunachalam Muruganantham in the international press, you may take her sentimental sweetening of the PadMan's story to be the actual deal.
'What love! What sacrifice! What blood!'
But in the way Muruganantham recounts his story you would sense no sentimental sweetening whatsoever.
Here's a worldly man who seems to have never forgotten that impressing his wife was as much an exercise in boosting his own ego as it was an act of concern. And he talks about how, once making a sanitary pad right became his obsession, it brought out the curious cuckoo, the scientist, and perhaps even the latent socialist in him -- his personal fight was now a fight against consumerism; the devils of which consumerism had enthused Khanna to write a story on Arunachalam Muruganantham and which inspired Balki to now do an adaptation of the book.
Throughout the movie, I kept wondering, how, a director like Abhishek Kapoor, with his skill and good humour, may have turned Muruganantham's story into a compelling movie taking us closer to the insanity of the man while not denying those opposed to him their just desserts.
But Balki's films, with their advertising naiveté, are about the good people that we want people around us to become. Balki isn't a man to understand Muruganantham, because he just isn't worldly enough.
In PadMan, there's not one character with any fullness of personality (The 'This is a fictionalised account' disclaimer functions like an insurance policy for someone like Balki).
The women are especially made mice. The gifted Radhika Apte (playing Lakshmikant's wife, Gayatri), talks with that little-girl breathiness, and is made to look panicky throughout the picture, trying as if to maintain her nostrils in good shape.
As if bored by the deal she gets, Apte, in one of the closing scenes, snaps out of her village belle avatar, and while banging the phone down almost mutters the F-word.
Balki selects the easiest and the most grotesque targets and then in his neurotic style keeps pounding them out.
Uneducated villagers and family members set in their ways stand on guard as ogres before the portal of Lakshmikant's wife as he attempts to break through.
The simple-minded Lakshmi can't quite understand why there's a hush-hush around the topic of menstrual cycle (we urban-dwellers would also feel a similar sense of cultural shock but to think ourselves superior owing to our liberal education would be to commit the ultimate liberal error), and this split between Lakshmi's freeness and the villagers' choking conservatism gives the movie its single joke which it keeps playing for us over and over again.
While someone like an Ashwiny Iyer-Tiwari may bring from her advertising experience certain snappiness and a flea-hopping visual wit, there's none of that visual freedom to be experienced in a Balki movie.
He is a director who totally edits discovery, his films don't arrive steaming, and here, except for Akshay Kumar everyone and everything else is kept on tight leash. Nothing spills over the edges; everything is too controlled.
The lunacy of Muruganantham is not to be discovered in the style of the movie, but in a background song that keeps on shouting, 'All hail the insane man!'
Visually, parts of PadMan look like a Vicco Turmeric commercial, parts of it look like a Tourism Ad and parts of it like a commercial for Etihad Airlines. But almost all of it, unmistakably, sounds like one big town-hall message.
Balki merely traces the story through its outlines but never dares in. And despite Akshay Kumar's valiant efforts to play the 'only real man around', the best scenes in PadMan are ones where the women get their mojo working without his intervention.
Lakshmikant's asking of 'pheedback' doesn't quite have the rapturous energy of his old mother's show of tantrums.
There is an offhand beauty in the way Apte's Gayatri points out to Lakshmikant, how, she has now moved back into their room, which basically means she is not chumming anymore. And then, Lakshmi's sister takes her place outside.
In the way the women silently take turns to sleep in that prescribed zone, it sharpened my sense of a painful reality; something that Lakshmikant's 15 minutes of on-the-stage performance just did not.
Even Sonam Kapoor's Pari scores her best moment when she takes the wind out of Lakshmikant's sails in a hotel lobby as she slowly lunges toward him.
'Please make out, oh, please make out,' I kept praying, but then Lakshmikant receives a phone call from his wife and Pari is saved by the bell.
Just the last week, post the release of Padmaavat and after the outrage of the Karni Sena had settled down, a needless debate raged on about whether or not the picture was regressive, and if it was, how regressive exactly.
For my part, I thought there were five dozen reasons for calling Padmaavat a dreary movie but bringing down a 15th century poem for not subscribing to the modern standards of liberalism is to weight everything from The Odyssey to the works of Strindberg (that genius misogynist) against the spirit of our age.
A movie like PadMan, progressive in its pitch but with nothing else to sustain it, settles the issue of our liberals taking their good taste too seriously.
For this is not truly a liberal world if we keep searching for alternatives to regressive ideas in an R Balki film.