Chhapaak

Director: Meghna Gulzar

Cast: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey

Duration: 2 hours

What does Chhapaak mean? It’s the phonetic sound of a splash. It’s what you hear when acid hits skin. The recipient is routinely a woman and the attacker is almost always a man who seeks revenge by scarring. The acid, he hopes, will disfigure his victim’s face and consequently her life. It’s a crime calculated to shatter a woman physically and mentally. Society decrees that beauty is a superpower – especially for women. With acid, the perpetrator hopes to show his target who is boss. But Laxmi Agarwal, who was attacked by a stalker when she was only 15, refused to follow the script. Instead she filed a PIL and fought legal battles for years. Eventually the Supreme Court passed an order restricting and regulating the sale of acid in India. Laxmi refers to herself as a survivor, not victim.

This remarkable story is the inspiration for Chhapaak, in which Deepika Padukone plays Malti, a middle-class Delhi girl whose pleasantly ordinary life is wrecked by an acid attack. The film opens seven years after she has filed the PIL. As the case moves forward sluggishly, Malti struggles to find a job. But prospective employers don’t know how to work around her reconstructed face. The owner of a beauty parlour rejects her with –  Beauty parlour main beauty na ho toh problem hoti hai. Director Meghna Gulzar presents the anguish of this in a low-key way.  There is minimal drama. This is Malti’s life. But she doesn’t crumble. Malti soldiers on, stoically and sometimes, even with a smile.

Right after the attack, the disfiguration is extreme but Meghna Gulzar doesn’t linger on the horror. Instead, we get an aching scene in which Malti’s mother wordlessly bathes her burnt daughter

Chhapaak’s biggest success is that Deepika becomes Malti. Her commitment and conviction is complete. At no point do we feel that this is a superstar celebrated for her beauty, purposefully un-beautifying herself. Deepika infuses Malti with a quiet heroism. Her strength doesn’t require screaming. The prosthetics by Clover Wootton, which alter as Malti undergoes seven surgeries, feel authentic. Right after the attack, the disfiguration is extreme but Meghna doesn’t linger on the horror. Instead, we get an aching scene in which Malti’s mother wordlessly bathes her burnt daughter. The visual reminded me of American photo-journalist W. Eugene Smith’s iconic photograph Tomoko Uemura in her Bath in which a Japanese mother lovingly bathes her daughter who suffers from Minamata disease, a type of mercury poisoning. The gentleness in the frame underlines the tragedy.

Vikrant Massey is also lovely as Malti’s grumpy boss Amol. Amol’s angry activism is tempered by Malti’s ability to find joy in the world. In one of the film’s best scenes, she reminds him that the acid was thrown on her, not him. Their love story is tender and delightfully cheeky. Madhurjeet Sarghi exudes understated strength as Malti’s lawyer Archana.  

Chhapaak hovers dangerously close to becoming a public service announcement. The messaging becomes bigger than the movie, which reduces the impact

But despite the strong performances, the film doesn’t feel urgent or alive enough. Who was Malti before the attack? What were her dreams? What did she enjoy? We have little sense of this until much later in the film. Which makes it difficult to emotionally invest in her in the way that this story requires. Chhapaak is powered by good intentions and progressive messaging but the film is undermined by a flawed screenplay. Written by Meghna and Atika Chohan, the narrative jumps back and forth in time. The action largely moves between Malti’s journey to recovery, her job at an NGO and her battles in court. The hopscotching is confusing and it doesn’t allow the characters to flourish. It also slackens the pace. Meghna’s grip on the material and consequently the audience becomes uneven.

Compare this to another film about an acid attack survivor – Uyare, released last year, in which Parvathy Thiruvothu plays the lead. Writers Bobby and Sanjay create a living, breathing portrait of a woman passionate about becoming a pilot. The dream is destroyed by her attacker – or so he thinks. But Pallavi refuses to let her circumstances defeat her. Like Malti, Pallavi is a hero but she is more layered. We see her seething rage, her desire for revenge, her bitterness. Malti doesn’t achieve this dynamism.

Despite the strong performances, the film doesn’t feel urgent or alive enough. Who was Malti before the attack? What were her dreams?

Meghna stages the attack with an unflinching gaze. It’s devastating to watch the horror unfold so casually in a crowded market place. The bystanders gaze as a woman’s face melts. The first time we see it, the rousing title song written by Gulzar saab and sung by Arijit Singh plays. In scenes like this, the film rises to its full power. But there are also stretches in which disconnected events are strung together to make a larger point and Chhapaak hovers dangerously close to becoming a public service announcement. The messaging becomes bigger than the movie, which reduces the impact.

There is enough to admire in Chhapaak. But I wish the film had taken the leaps that its protagonist did.

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