Pad Campaign

How an Oscar-winning documentary used India’s rural women to sell a product

The documentary spends a substantial amount of time framing the women’s ignorance about menstruation. courtesy netflix / sam davis
01 May, 2019

Documentaries usually tend to leave mainstream Indian audiences indifferent. Except, when it wins an Oscar and has something to do with India. In February, Period. End of Sentence., directed by the Iranian-American filmmaker Rayka Zahtabchi, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). The 26-minute film is set in Kathikera, a village in Uttar Pradesh, and depicts rural women overcoming their shame about menstruation by learning to manufacture and sell indigenous sanitary pads.

The film in many ways resembles the kind of documentaries commissioned by non-profits. It is neat, tells an inspirational story, and follows the introduce-a-problem-suggest-a-solution model. The documentary is devoid of complexity and nuance, and aims to balance activism and storytelling. Such a style, by itself, is fine, but raises two vital questions: Why did this mediocre documentary win an Oscar? Is this another example of how the West sees, or likes to portray, the populace of a developing country—clueless, helpless folk in desperate need of a guiding light?

The film essentially says this: give the rural women a pad-making machine, and it will transform their lives. Before the end credits roll, we learn that the project was “funded by students at Oakland school in Los Angeles via bake sales, Kickstarters and yogathons.” The movie ends with an exhortation to its viewers to help “install more pad machines worldwide” by supporting the Pad Project—a California-based “non-profit organisation focussed on eliminating the stigma around menstruation.” The Pad Project is one of the film’s 30 co-producers, and the first name mentioned in the opening credits. Guneet Monga’s Sikhya Entertainment—an Indian film production house based in Mumbai—is also a joint producer.

In the first half, the documentary spends a substantial amount of time framing the Kathikera women’s ignorance about menstruation. A particularly troubling scene comes early in the movie, when a schoolteacher, speaking in halting English, rebukes her students for not being able to define menstruation. One of them finally stands up but, presumably not fluent in English and looking mortified, fails to string together an answer. “In the edit, part of you wants to indulge in the drama of it and continue that shot for as long as you can,” Zahtabchi said in an interview to the international documentary association. “And then you realise what it is to be respectful and sensitive and not exploit them.” The eventual shot, however, does not seem particularly respectful either—the camera forcing its subjects, unprepared for this sudden interrogation, to respond to its intrusive eye. In the director’s own telling, the crew had walked into the classroom unannounced, without the prior consent of the children.

Tanul Thakur is a Mumbai-based film critic and independent journalist. He has written reviews, features and opinion pieces for, among other publications, GQFountain InkMan's World, Yahoo! India, the Wire, Firstpost, and OZY. In 2015, he received the National Film Award for Best Film Critic and the Mumbai Press Club Award for Best Lifestyle and Entertainment Story. He's on Twitter as @Plebeian42.