NEW DELHI - Drafting a menstrual hygiene program to be taught in schools in India's western Maharashtra state posed a challenge: How to train teachers to become comfortable talking about a subject that is never openly spoken about, even inside homes, and has long been surrounded by taboos.
"It is a very inhibiting environment," said Bharathy Tahiliani in Mumbai, who helped design the teaching modules for the program spearheaded by United Nations Children's Agency. "It puts a lot of fears in the hearts and minds of girls."
Now a Bollywood film, Padman, dubbed the world's first feature film to address the subject of menstruation, could make it easier to confront the stigma that surrounds the hushed topic. Winning accolades and a huge audience since it opened this month, the movie has helped catapult words such as sanitary napkins and periods into newspaper articles, television debates and social media.
Starring a top hero, Akshay Kumar, the film is based on the true-life story of a social entrepreneur in South India who set out on a mission to make low-cost sanitary napkins after he discovers his wife uses rags.
In one scene, Padman shows him cycling around a village wearing a sanitary napkin he has made and using animal blood to test if it leaked. It also depicts the horror in the small town as he openly talks about menstruation.
Dozens of Bollywood actors and actresses have joined in to spread the message: In a country where shopkeepers discreetly pack sanitary napkins in black plastic bags under the counter so that they are not visible, they have tweeted photos of themselves holding up sanitary pads.
"It is fantastic," the overjoyed film director, R. Balki, told VOA after witnessing the reaction of some viewers. "There were men with their wives and they were coming out of the theater and talking about just not the film, they were talking about a pad as if it is an everyday conversation. Just to make that come out in the open is a big, big deal."
Social activists say the buzz generated by the movie could help efforts to tackle the issue of menstrual hygiene and sanitation in villages, slums and other low-income communities.
Targeting myths, taboos
In India, as in several countries, the myths and taboos about menstruation are many: Women cannot visit temples, take part in religious ceremonies or prepare food. The greater challenge is that an estimated 20 percent of adolescent girls drop out of school after puberty, and unhygienic practices lead to infections.
Pointing out that this reinforces gender inequalities, Tahiliani said education is the key to correcting misconceptions. But she said that for a very long time, "who owns the subject" was itself a challenge, with few willing to wade into a hyper-sensitive topic. That has been slowly changing in recent years, and several states like Maharashtra are implementing menstrual hygiene programs in schools and communities, often in partnership with voluntary groups.
One of them, the Center for Advocacy and Research, has been helping set up adolescent forums in slums and low-income areas in cities like Delhi and Kolkata to create awareness.
A member of a forum in the eastern city of Kolkata, 20-year-old Rehana Khatun said she was hesitant to attend programs on menstrual awareness when she was young. "People used to discourage us," she said. "Why do you go there? They teach you dirty things." Now, she is on the frontlines of those going around schools and communities to talk about it. "Young girls should not get scared the way I did, I thought I had some illness," she recalled about the onset of puberty.
Another volunteer, Mohini Khatun, hopes the conversation that Padman has generated will bring the subject out of the closet, especially within families.
"Our adolescent group will go and watch it," she said. "It is essential that our mothers and fathers should also go."
Into rural India and beyond
However, while the movie is helping generate discussions in cities and towns, it remains to be seen whether it will do the same in rural India.
The makers of Padman say they are trying to take the film to tens of thousands of villages across the country. "The problem is there are lots of places where there are no theaters. We are trying to tie up with various foundations to screen this film in lots of villages free of cost," said director Balki.
And although Bollywood movies are a rage in several Asian countries, it is uncertain how this film will fare outside India, where similar sensitivities exist. The challenge will not be easy. Already Pakistan's censor board has banned the film, saying that the movie is about a taboo subject and releasing it would go against culture and tradition.