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Is the Oscar-Winning Documentary on Menstruation in India Worthy of the Win?

In the sea of evolved conversations on menstruation in India, 'Period: The End of Sentence' comes across as superficial noise.

by Pallavi Pundir
26 February 2019, 12:38am

'Period: The End of Sentence' is running on Netflix. Image: http://www.raykazehtabchi.com

This article originally appeared on VICE India

Unpopular opinion: I think Period: The End of Sentence is unremarkable. I watched this 26-minute documentary over the weekend and thought to myself, “Hmm, white folks finally woke up to this?” For the uninitiated, Period is a Netflix documentary about a bunch of women in the Hapur district of Uttar Pradesh, who, when given access to a sanitary pad vending machine, decide to revolutionise not just issues of personal sanitation and privacy, but also the taboos around women and hygiene in India. This morning (or last night if you are based in the US), it won the Best Documentary Short at the 91st Academy Awards.

If you are clued in to current events in India, you will already be familiar with the famous ‘Pad Man’, Arunachalam Muruganantham from Coimbatore, and his remarkable story of inventing low-cost sanitary pad-making machines and installing them across the country. Muruganantham’s initiative got its first mainstream due with the 2013 documentary, Menstrual Man by Singapore-based filmmaker Amit Virmani. In 2014, Muruganantham was named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time. In 2017, Bollywood gave his work more teeth (and drama) with Akshay Kumar-starrer Pad Man. And let’s face it: The Indian commercial film industry has the power to lend a stronger social currency in the country than most other entities.

This morning, though, I woke up to just one thought: Really? The problem, here, doesn’t lie with the film, its subject or the format. It’s the datedness of it all, layered with a uni-dimensional lens, devoid of any understanding of the “menstrual politics” that have manifested in the social, religious and cultural structures of the country over the last few years. The recent controversy over the Sabarimala verdict, for one, is an indictment of human societies, where, as this writer notes, “a woman’s most intimate bodily function is not merely a “biological fact” but rather, a cultural and social fact pregnant with immense implications.”

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The famous 'Pad Man' Arunachalam Muruganantham features in the documentary. Image: www.raykazehtabchi.com

At this juncture, Period comes across as an outdated conversation, one that also fits into the whole #OscarSoWhite narrative, which would probably explain the controversy over Green Book winning Best Original Screenplay this morning, a movie that has infamously used the white saviour trope. And, of course, it’s a perfect “Oscar bait”, a term coined to denote cinematic projects that exist for the sole purpose of drawing the attention of the Oscar jury ( Slumdog Millionaire, anyone?).

The film has been directed by Iranian-American Rayka Zehtabchi; the producers include American high-school professor Melissa Berton, Hollywood insiders Garrett Schiff and Lisa Taback, and Zehtabchi. One of the THIRTEEN executive producers is Guneet Monga, the founder of Sikhya Entertainment, known for producing films like Masaan, Peddlers and The Lunchbox. The real subjects of the story—the women of Kathikhera, Hapur, and NGO Action India—get their due in small font in the credit roll. The whole film has been supported by The Pad Project, an organisation that was set up by a group of students from Oakwood School in Los Angeles and their teacher, Berton.

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There's more to menstruation in India. Image: www.raykazehtabchi.com

For me, as an Indian woman, the film is detached from its subject and unapologetically Western in its approach. Zehtabchi’s acceptance speech at the Oscar ceremony—“I’m not crying because I’m on my period or anything”—further reiterates this tone-deaf approach to a subject rife with the stereotype of a woman on period.

The Oscar nod seems to ride on a sentiment that it doesn’t yet understand, nor does it seek to.

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