Ill-informed, dishonest, though perhaps well-meant, Period.End of Sentence’s win reflects poorly on the Oscars
Since Period.End of Sentence’s Oscar win last week for Best Documentary (Short Subject), a steady stream of laudatory articles and congratulatory interviews of its American director Rayka Zehtabchi have appeared on the Net. The Indian news media in particular has been flooded with almost universally and unequivocally positive reviews and reports celebrating “Oscars’ India connection” since Guneet Monga’s Mumbai-based Sikhya Entertainment is one of the film’s producers.
Monga has, among other things, been at the forefront of what some might call the Hindi New Wave of the past half decade or so. She has been backing Bollywood indies of the sort that usually struggle to make it to mainstream theatres (Lunchbox and Masaan among them), so if any behind-the-scenes cinematic force deserves the limelight – international or domestic – it is she. However, admiration for her track record and even the movie-worthy, charming story of how Period.End of Sentence. was kicked off by an enterprising teacher and students at Oakwood School, California, should not divert attention from this unfortunate point: that though it may well have been started with good intentions, it has ended up a confusing, poorly researched and, sadly, even dishonest film.
Period.End of Sentence. – a Netflix original and currently streaming on the platform – is a 26 minute documentary set in a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hapur district, 60 km outside Delhi. It focuses on poor menstrual hygiene and ignorance about periods in this rural community, told through the story of how attitudes change when a low-cost sanitary napkin making machine (purchased from funds raised by the Oakwood students) is installed locally to enable women of the place to manufacture pads themselves and become entrepreneurs in the field. That machine is the invention of Coimbatore resident Arunachalam Muruganantham, who was the subject of Amit Virmani’s 2013 documentary feature Menstrual Man and the inspiration for the Bollywood film Padman (2018) starring Akshay Kumar.
At a time when the Sabarimala imbroglio has put the national media spotlight firmly on the stigmatisation of menstruation in various ways in Indian culture, Period.End of Sentence. has the power to further mainstream that crucial conversation. Besides, to be fair to Zehtabchi and to Melissa Berton, the American teacher whose initiative led to the making of this film, they have both been at pains to explain to the Western news media that the stigma around periods is not just a problem of financially constrained countries like India. In an interview to awardsdaily.com last month, Berton said: “It’s definitely an issue in the US as well. They put free pads in a lower socio-economic area recently in New York and attendance went up. It’s not just a developing country issue.” Likewise, Zehtabchi told Glamour: “After they see the film, I hope people understand this period stigma doesn’t just affect those in India. We experience it in the United States and in other cultures as well.” The other side of this coin though is that a similarly ill-researched film set in the United States is unlikely to have escaped scrutiny in the way Period.End of Sentence. has.
For those of us who are not experts on this subject, the first warning sign of trouble should come from the mixed signals Period sends out. Almost half the film is devoted to introducing viewers to woman after woman, girl after girl in Hapur who freezes, giggles or suffers excruciating shyness when asked about periods. Throughout this segment, the effort is to convince us that women here do not know of sanitary napkins, that the few who do are too diffident to buy them, and that they all opt for makeshift cloth pads made from rags.
Yet when the central figures of Zehtabchi’s documentary – the charismatic aspiring policewoman Sneha among them – start peddling the pads they have made under the brand name Fly with Muruganantham’s machine, they are shown devoting most of their time to convincing potential customers that Fly is better despite being cheaper than other sanitary napkins in the market. This is odd, because if the women they are targeting have never before used sanitary napkins, as we have been told by the film until then, then they would not know or care, at least not at first, about what else is available on shop shelves.
Logically speaking, Fly’s primary challenge should have been to convince Hapur’s women to switch from cloth pads to sanitary napkins in the first place, but at no point do we see Sneha & Co doing that. In fact, their brief chats with potential buyers shown on screen in the second half suggest that most of these women do indeed know of sanitary napkins and many are perhaps using them. The question that follows then is why the film would initially try to convince us otherwise.
Could it be that poor village women in the far off ‘Orient’ who have zero awareness about sanitary napkins are more exotic and therefore make for more colourful cinema than poor village women in the far off ‘Orient’ who already use sanitary napkins and only need to be convinced to switch from one brand to another?
Or could it be that tarring all these women with one brush is easier than explaining the heterogeneity in this Indian village in which co-exist women who are aware of sanitary napkins and those who are not, women who use sanitary napkins and those who do not, women who use unhygienic alternatives and those who use clean cloth?
Or, could the confusion in Period.End of Sentence. simply be the result of lazy research?
The only statistic available in the film comes from Muruganantham who confidently claims that “less than 10%” of Indian women use sanitary napkins. He does not cite the source of this information, but a basic Google search should have told Zehtabchi that it is questionable.
In fact, this figure is one of many issues in Period.End of Sentence. – including environmental concerns – red-flagged in an exhaustive blog published by the Karnataka-based NGO Mythri Speaks immediately after Zehtabchi collected her Oscar trophy last week.
Muruganantham himself has contradicted the number on other platforms. In a TED Talk in Bangalore earlier this decade, he claimed that only 2% of Indian women use sanitary pads. His company Jayaashree Industries’ website too at present says that just 2% of Indian women use sanitary pads, though it is unclear from the language of the site whether it is referring to women across India or only rural women. Here too, the source is not given. Another part of the website does however refer to a report by the market research group AC Nielsen stating that “88% of women in India are driven to use ashes, newspapers, sand husks and dried leaves during their periods”. What the website does not reveal is that this Nielsen study, though widely quoted in the media has come in for strong criticism for its limited scope among other reasons.
The far more credible, pan-India National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 2015-16 – easily accessible on the Internet and also widely quoted in the media – reveals that 48.2% of rural women and 77.5% of urban women in the 15-24 age group use what NFHS describes as “a hygienic method” of menstrual protection (read: “locally prepared napkins, sanitary napkins, and tampons”). Those using sanitary napkins in particular amount to 41.8% of this demographic.
According to NFHS, the all-India figure for those using a hygienic method of menstrual protection in this age group is approximately 58%. These statistics, though far less sensational than the sole figure given in Zehtabchi’s documentary, are certainly shocking and unacceptable. It is not this article’s contention that India has any reason to be proud of the fact that 42% of the country’s young women use unhygienic methods of menstrual protection. The question mark over Period.End of Sentence. arises entirely because it misrepresents facts.
There is enough drama in the truth, but sadly, it appears that Zehtabchi and her team wanted more. Towards this end, they have gone beyond playing fast and loose with stats.
In one of the film’s most memorable passages, a teacher in a school in Hapur is shown pestering her female students to explain the meaning of periods for the benefit of the camera before a packed classroom filled with boys and girls. One child in particular becomes the focus of everyone’s attention as she struggles to speak, nearly paralysed as she is by a debilitating shyness.
While this exploitative scene is used to illustrate the average rural Indian woman’s fear of discussing periods, it should make us wonder how many girls of the same age even in urban India or Zehtabchi’s home country, the US, would be particularly delighted to respond to an insensitive interrogator in such a public situation about a biological phenomenon they are just getting used to in their own lives. That this particular girl belongs to a conservative society makes the film’s approach even more problematic.
Child rights activists in India and abroad will hopefully also take note of Zehtabchi’s own admission about the unethical manner in which she shot that scene. In an interview to documentary.org, quoted in Mythri Speaks’ blog, Zehtabchi says: “...we walked into a co-ed classroom, unannounced, in India. The teacher asked the 15-year-old students if anyone could tell her what menstruation was. And there’s a shot in the film of a young girl who’s called upon, and she stands up completely petrified. In the film, there is about 30 seconds where she literally cannot say a word. In real life we got about three minutes of footage of her where it seemed like she was going to faint…”
Read that again. She shot interviews of minors. Without their prior consent. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave her an Oscar. Unarguably the most sought-after film award in the world.
The Oscar win for Period.End of Sentence. will no doubt play a part in encouraging more conversations, and more open conversations, about menstruation in India and the rest of the world. This, however, is no excuse for the means adopted by the film to achieve its goal. The end cannot justify untruths and insensitivity. Period.
The subtitles of Period.End of Sentence. are curious. It is not clear from the credits whether the subs were given by the production team or Netflix or another party. Whatever be the case, the terribly politically incorrect analogies used by an affable elderly woman called Shabana to market Fly pads in Hapur have been mistranslated. Shabana, who is one of the key characters in Period, compares Fly to a “susheel bahu” (good-natured daughter-in-law) and an unnamed rival brand to a “sundar bahu” (good-looking daughter-in-law), and later equates Fly with an ugly (“badsoorat”), black (“kaala”) man who is competent. The subtitles merely use the words “beauty” and “quality” to convey her meaning, although the literal translation would have also served the purpose. It is obvious from the tone of Period that it wants viewers to like the likes of Sneha and Shabana whose lives this project claims to have transformed, and while it is possible that there was no political calculation behind the writing of the subtitles, the departure from accuracy in the subs here alone suggests an attempt to camouflage evidence of Shabana’s biases at least from liberal viewers in the West. The point being missed here is that women have a right to their rights, to education and to health whether they are nice people or not.
The subtitles, of course, are the least of Period’s problem areas.
This article has also been published on Firstpost: