Bestselling female Indian author, film producer and woman empowerment champion Twinkle Khanna, joined a canon of esteemed cultural, political and high profile figures as she addressed students at The Oxford Union, the world’s most prestigious debating society. The event came ahead of the worldwide release of her highly anticipated debut as producer, Pad Man, in cinemas 25 January 2018.
The day also saw a meeting between Twinkle and youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Oxford University student Malala Yousafzai to discuss the education of girls.
Popularly known to her readers as Mrs Funnybones, which also doubles up as the title of her first book and columns, Twinkle Khanna’s debut book Mrs Funnybones sold over 100,000 copies. This feat made her the highest-selling female author in India with her second book, The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, landing at number two on Amazon India’s bestseller list. The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad featured a number of short stories, one of which was the story of a man who invented a machine to make low-cost sanitary pads. Recognising a vital need to have this story shared to a wider audience, Twinkle had turned producer to develop it for the big screen.
The result is her latest endeavour, Pad Man, the world’s first feature film on menstrual hygiene, based on the life of social entrepreneur and activist Arunachalam Muruganantham, who revolutionised sanitary hygiene in rural India 20 years ago. Pad Man traces Arunachalam Muruganantham’s international journey from an outcast exiled from society for his endeavours to delve into such a taboo subject, to becoming a super-hero of India’s modern history, as he followed his dream to bring a revolution to menstrual hygiene in India.
Eager students flocked to The Oxford Union to see Twinkle Khanna’s highly anticipated speech and Q&A session, in what marked the first time for an Indian film to be showcased at the institution. Before Twinkle took to the spotlight, the audience were presented with the official trailer of Pad Man, which generated a rapturous response of laughter when lead actor Akshay Kumar remarks that if a man bled for the amount of time a women did as a result of menstruation – he would die.
Twinkle’s speech had the audience chuckling throughout as she candidly recalls what drew her to the story of the real life Pad Man Muruganantham, “Arunachalam Muruganatham’s story fascinated me. He is the first man to wear a sanitary pad – imagine that!” She went on to note the significance of his achievements, “To me he is an example that intelligence is truly not constrained within the boundaries of a particular language or a formal mechanism like education.”
Twinkle engaged the audience by explaining why the world needs to know about Pad Man’s story and the importance of spotlighting issues relating to menstrual hygiene. “My primary motivation to make a movie on menstruation was to bring awareness to a subject that so far has been tucked away in shadows and like Voldemort is never mentioned.”
She also pointed out the global nature of the problems including in the UK, saying that: “In the beginning, I thought that period poverty was only a problem in my country and countries like Africa, Bangladesh, but groups like Plan International UK have found that one in ten school girls in the UK itself are missing school because they are unable to afford hygiene products and end up using substitutes like rolled up socks.”
Twinkle’s speech also dealt with the controversial taxes on sanitary products, the impact of menstrual hygiene on girls’ education and even surprised the audience with a few questions of her own for the women in the audience. Recalling Muruganantham’s own idiosyncratic maxim and its relevance to the world, Twinkle said, “He said to me: ‘all countries want to be strong but if mother strong, sister strong, woman strong then only is a country strong’ and that is something we need to look at globally.”
Speaking about her hopes for the film, she told the audience, “Pad Man, I am hoping is more than a movie, that it’s part of a movement where women are no longer hampered, embarrassed or held back because of their biology; where ads no longer show blue liquid instead of red; where President Trump can’t shame a reporter by saying ‘she is bleeding between her whatever’ and a world where, although we can’t promise every schoolgirl iPads, we can ensure that they get all the sanitary pads they need.”
In the Q&A session that followed her speech, Twinkle asked an audience filled with Oxford University students to raise their hands if they were currently on their periods. When almost three quarters of the room raised their arms aloft, Twinkle said “Now imagine sitting here with a rag cloth or a rolled up sock or even wadded up newspaper between your legs. Would it even be possible for you to study under those circumstances?
“Yet pads are still seen as a luxury item. Its odd that pads are taxed at 12 percent in India but brooms are tax free, because it is more important that you keep your house clean rather than your body, and that America has taxes on tampons but Viagra is in fact tax-free, perhaps because policies are made by 65 year old men.”
Answering questions from The Oxford Union Vice President Sabriyah Saeed, Twinkle said: “One of the things I really wanted from this movie, which I think we are already on the way to achieving, is to make it a conversation starter. We want all members of the family to discuss this topic, including the men, even if it is merely to decide whether they should go and see Pad Man or not!”
Speaking at the meeting, prior to Twinkle’s speech, Malala mentioned to Twinkle: “I’m really excited to see the film Pad Man, and am looking forward to seeing the trailer shortly because the message behind the film is truly inspiring.”
Approaching its 200th anniversary, The Oxford Union has an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford, with the aim of promoting debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe. Former participants include US Presidents Reagan, Nixon, and Carter, Sir Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Malcolm X, Mother Teresa, Sir Elton John, the Dalai Lama, Michael Jackson, Malala Yousafzai, Morgan Freeman, Shashi Tharoor, and Buzz Aldrin, to name but a few. Twinkle Khanna’s participation continues The Oxford Union’s fine tradition of hosting world leaders in every field.