Production Talk with Amit Virmani on 'Menstrual Man'

There are men who squirm at the mention of a woman’s period. And then there’s Muruganantham, a school dropout who realised that the majority of women in India couldn’t afford sanitary pads and decided to do something about it.

With limited resources at his disposal, he adopted extreme methods to conduct his research. It wasn’t long before his community shunned him. Even his wife decided that he was a pervert and left him. But that was then. Today, Muruganantham is hailed as a visionary whose machines are empowering poor Indian women with access to both basic feminine hygiene and a livelihood.

Menstrual Man the documentary, tells the story of this unlikely hero who stood up for India’s ignored. It was a Netflix audience favourite at Hot Docs 2013, underscoring the importance of empowering women to combat poverty and highlights the power every individual has to make a difference.

The documentary is work of Singapore-based filmmaker Amit Virmani. His debut, Cowboys in Paradise, was one of the most talked-about Asian documentaries in recent years. The controversial film was featured on CNN, BBC and various international media, and is regarded as a valuable counterpoint to “Eat, Pray, Love”. It has been broadcast in over 100 countries and included in women studies curricula at more than 80 universities.

We speak to Amit about chasing his muse Menstrual Man.

How did you hear about Muruganantham and meet him?
A friend sent me an article on him. You could put a gun to her head now and she wouldn't be able to tell you why she did it. She didn't actually believe I'd be interested in the subject. So it was pure dumb luck, I guess, specially since very little had been written about him in international media back then.
A week later, this was in early Jan 2012, I was sitting face to face with him in his workshop in Coimbatore. No clear plan yet. Just recording our conversations and observing the people who came to meet him. Basically trying to determine if there was enough for a documentary there. And also, using the time to build familiarity. We hit it off immediately, but that's not the same as trusting each other. That takes time. By the third week I was answering some of his emails and calls, specially NGO enquiries from North India since Muru doesn't speak Hindi very well.
You interviewed many women in the rural village. How did you build the trust with them and get them to open up to the camera?
Well one of the reasons I shoot alone is that it makes the subjects more comfortable. Five minutes into an interview, they've forgotten there's a camera present. You can have a conversation with a one person crew. But add just one more to the mix, a sound guy or whatever, and it becomes an interview. Guards go up, answers become more measured, conversations become performances.
Of course, there was an additional dimension this time. A man speaking to women about menstruation! Not something women are comfortable doing anywhere, let alone in rural, conservative India. But I picked women who were doing precisely that. All the women in the film had long shrugged off their shyness, had looked past the taboo that surrounds menstrual matters. They go around villages raising awareness on menstrual hygiene. They see themselves as role models, and the film was another platform for them to spread their message. 

How long did you take to make this documentary? It must have been a long journey. What were the greatest challenges you faced?
About 4 months on the ground in India. Then another month planning and shooting Muru's master interview and the re-enactment scenes in Singapore. And then 2-3 months piecing it all together in post. Of course there were months in between when we had to wait to save money. The save-spend-save-spend dance is a big part of indie filmmaking.
Which leads to your next question, regarding the challenges. Personally, there's only challenge I face as a filmmaker: determining if I want to spend time and money to tell a story. That's the only one I struggle with.
Once I decide to go ahead, then everything else -- all of it -- is just in aid of that commitment. I'm not saying things are easy, but they're fun. Or, at the very least, part of the journey. It's a heightened form of travel. Going to places I wouldn't go to otherwise, speaking to people on levels that are hard to reach as a tourist.

The way you have edited the film demonstrates a great deal of comic timing. Of course, Muruganantham is a funny man as well. Could you share a bit more about your editing process and how you drew out the humour from the film?
Well I don't know about the "how" because it's hard to pinpoint one's influences or explain one's style. But I can answer the "why". I want my films to be watchable. I'm not saying humour is the only way to achieve that. Obviously it wouldn't work for some subjects. But there are many ways to make a film engaging. Enjoyable even. You can't expect people to watch a film just because it's about a serious subject. To me, that's bullshit. It's a disservice to the audience because if that's all it's about, they can just read an article on the subject.
Then there's the whole "Oh if you don't like it, you must not appreciate documentaries" argument. It's not the same as saying, "I guess you don't like my style." That's fair. But to somehow imply that people are not sophisticated enough to qualify as your audience is all kinds of patronising. And the audience is fully entitled to respond with a "Fuck off!"

You used an interesting technique of juxtaposing facts about the state of menstrual treatment with song and dance snippets from Bollywood movies. Could you explain why you chose to do so?
Goes back to what we just discussed. I was looking for ways to make the film more engaging. And man, we explored all kinds of things.
I experimented with Rajasthani puppetry for the re-enactment scenes. For Muru's "eureka moment," we created an animated scene that was a homage to the Dawn of Man sequence from 2001. You can catch a glimpse of it in the trailer. I even had the composer do an Indian-ized version of Thus Spake Zarathustra for that one. Trippy stuff. But a lot of things don't make it into the final film. Little failures and detours along the way are part of the process.
The Bollywood sequences, specifically, were important to have because cinema is such a huge part of Indian culture. I'd say it shapes our views as much as it reflects them. Then there's the juxtaposition you mentioned. I felt it would be very effective to present startling, depressing facts while showing all those happy women dancing around and what not. 
During the Q&A of your film , you talked about how you were inspired to make this film, what are the possible stories that will inspire you? 
For future films, you mean? Couldn't tell you. There's a moment when you just know you want to tell a particular story. To try to explain it is to undermine what makes the moment special.
Also, I like not knowing what I'll want to do next. Someone told me the other day that Menstrual Man was not what she expected from the guy who made Cowboys. I could argue they're both about men in unconventional roles, but I suppose in a broad sense she's right. But that's a good thing. Who wants to be a one trick pony?
Can you tell us how is it possible to catch your film and how it is being distributed?

Well we'll be on at The Arts House till next Wednesday. I hope your readers will catch there. After that we'll resume the fest run. We've got some invites pending from European fests that happen in October, I think. Year end is when we release on iTunes and for broadcast. I know channels in Poland and Israel have licensed the film, and some others are in talks with our agent.

Here is a trailer of the film.

Menstrual Man screens at The Arts House, August 14-21 2013. The film was supported by MDA Singapore. For more on the film, check out the website
 Interview by Deitrich Mohan

Avid Flowrider, Muay thai trainee, movie buff, volunteer worker, literary activist, Mohan was a Lasalle Puttnam School of Film graduate and rebel. Always enjoyed film theory and spends time reading about film theory. Interested to pen down his thoughts and share it with the masses , he has joined SINdie to expand his knowledge on film and hopes to improve his writing everyday.
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