There’s a lot to dislike about our changing times, I miss iPods and non-communal politics for starters. But there’s also more conversation about previously taboo, uncomfortable topics like sexual consent, marital rape and periods. Comics like Menstupedia and semi-problematic movies like Pad-Man are helping us sneak discussions about menstruation into the mainstream.
One of the most recent projects to take on menstruation is a short film by a new director. In her directorial debut Her First Time, Divya Unny takes on menstruation and mother-daughter relationships – all in around eight minutes.
It begins with the child getting her period for the first time (and the unconventional choice of showing drops of blood on her fingers as she checks). Scared, the girl runs to the only adult at home at the moment – her father. At that time, the mother, a doctor, is dealing with a difficult delivery at the hospital where she works, and despite its importance, she misses being home for her daughter’s big moment.
Eventually, her daughter ends up taking charge (with a lot of help from a nervous father and a little box of pads containing encouraging notes her mother clearly prepared well in advance).
Just knowing the premise of the film, my mind was buzzing with a lot of complicated questions and emotions. But to her credit, Unny got more things right than wrong.
I often worry if menstruation, like feminism, is on the road to being commodified and sold back to women in convenient, perfumed packaging – sans a nuanced discussion on oppression, structural inequality and access to menstrual products. Will it become the new buzzword in marketing? Or is all this increasing visibility and awareness?
I also worry about putting too much pressure on these kinds of ‘social’ films – do we expect the same thoroughness from our blockbusters? Are they even comparable? Should films addressing real-world, social issues be held to a higher standard so as not to misrepresent issues that the mainstream media shirks away from?
Commendably, Her First Time presents a girl’s first period as a big moment, one to be valued and celebrated. This emphasis on the first time might be contrary to normalising what is actually a very regular bodily function, but openly celebrating something deemed shameful in society is definitely a radical move. In showing young children – girls boys and all people who menstruate – that our bodies are magical in and of themselves counts as an act of rebellion in a patriarchal society, and effectively undermines some of the oppressive social structures that burden them.
As the mother dealt with a difficult delivery at work, the sense of crisis extended to what her daughter was experiencing at home. And although the film portrays a sweet father-daughter dynamic (with him jolting into action once he realises what’s going on), his character was presented as mostly clueless. It would have been more refreshing to see the father act like the adult he is. We learn about menstruation in schools and it cant be such a revelation to a man who has fathered a child. Similarly, the film would have benefitted from exploring the mother’s role as a gynaecologist in normalising menstruation for her daughter, instead of using her job as a source for narrative drama.
The film is full of small, sweet moments – some that hit the spot and some that don’t. For instance, when the daughter asks her mom “Why does the princess always wait for the prince, Mama?” while reading a bedtime story, the mom replies, “A gentleman always waits.” Then she segues into asking her daughter about crushes at school. This moment felt like a massive missed opportunity for a discussion on reductive gender roles. For a film to take the current discussion on periods in the mainstream and run with it, it needs to delve into the subject matter more and capture its nuances. Otherwise, it’s still important but not that exciting.
Still, one of the more lovely aspects of the film is the bond between the family, underlining the importance of open dialogue and trust. The daughter’s comfort in telling her father about the drops of blood and her father’s helpful reaction goes a long way towards de-stigmatising menstruation. Or, to put it like her mother does, “Periods are normal, natural.”
The film also acknowledges that it only speaks to the urban Indian experience and doesn’t delve into the classist complications of menstruation and menstrual hygiene.
At a time when patriarchy seems stronger than ever, a film that explicitly discusses menstruation is always welcome. The openness with which periods were spoken in the film and between the characters about is rare and important. The celebration for her first time directly challenges the shame and hush-hush attitude associated (forced upon) ‘periods’ as a topic. And for that, the film is a triumph.