I'm having some trouble wrapping my head around an actor like Deepika Padukone in a drama like Chhapaak – but it's not what you think. It's not the "woke" thing. It's not, But how can she…? It's not even, But how dare she…? It's not about one of the most beautiful women in the world playing a woman who's lost what the world conventionally defines as beauty. It's really about something that I'll get to eventually, but let me first talk about why, as an actor, as a very beautiful actor, Deepika Padukone is well within her rights to play an acid-attack survivor.
At the core of this argument is the very definition of "acting". A dozen dictionaries say the same thing in different ways, so here's what Merriam-Webster says: the art or practice of representing a character on a stage or before cameras. That's what I believe: Deepika Padukone is "representing a character". Or even take how we use "acting" as an adjective: as in, "acting president". We refer to someone who has, temporarily, taken on the duties of another, or someone who is, temporarily, substituting for another. So that's what it is. Deepika Padukone is "representing" Laxmi Agarwal. Deepika Padukone is, temporarily (i.e., for the duration of the movie), substituting for Laxmi Agarwal.
Because if you believe otherwise, if you go down the rabbit hole of "only trans actors should play trans roles", then you should go all the way. If you believe it was wrong to paint Bhumi Pednekar brown in Bala, then it was also wrong to have Ayushmann Khurrana play bald. If you believe it was wrong to make Priyanka Chopra play Mary Kom, it's also wrong for Fawad Khan to play gay in Kapoor & Sons.
It's like freedom of expression. You are either for it or against it. You can't be for it, but with exceptions. You can't say, I am all for freedom of expression, unless someone's making graphically offensive jokes. That's a very slippery slope. As disgusting as these jokes are, if you stand up for freedom of expression, then you are saying, "I hate that this stand-up comic is trying to make people laugh with this material, but hey, that's what it takes to not be authoritarian." The very essence of "acting" is being someone else, and being paid a lot for it. When we see Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy, we are also seeing a very rich actor "pretending" to be a very poor slum-boy, and becoming a richer actor by the end of the movie, in addition to walking away with more fame, more awards.
That is the nature of the business. And it's literally a business, an expensive business. It's easy to sit on your Twitter high chair and sneer that the protagonist of Mary Kom should have really been played by an actor from the North East. In an ideal world, yes. In an ideal world, our screens would be filled with all kinds of faces and body shapes and language-speakers and accents, and a proud, bald actor – like the great Malayalam star Gopi – would instantly be cast in Bala. But we don't work like that. By "we", I mean us, the audience that consumes Hindi cinema. We shell out money only for specific faces, specific body types. We make stars out of only certain kinds of lookers, especially when it comes to actresses.
Even in the South, it's only with male stars that looks are not at a premium. We have the glorious brown faces of a Dhanush, a Vijay Sethupathi, and the glorious receding hairline of a Fahadh Faasil. But the women are still expected to be fair and lovely. The heroine in the Tamil action-drama Kadaikutty Singam is Sayyeshaa, Dilip Kumar's grandniece. Even I – see non-woke paragraphs above – was appalled that they had to fly in a non-Tamil-speaking Bombay actress and paint her brown to play a village girl in Southern Tamil Nadu, when there are so many brown-skinned Tamil-speaking actresses better suited for the part. But again, it's the economics. It's about casting an "it girl". Kadaikutty Singam was a blockbuster.
So I get it. I get that this is the business of cinema. And I'll get to the point that made me write this piece, which is this: So what is it about Deepika Padukone in Chhapaak that's making me uneasy? After all, in this unideal world, I certainly do not see an actual acid-attack survivor being cast in the part (Twitter warriors will applaud, but paying audiences will stay at home). If Laxmi Agarwal's story needs to reach a wide audience – and it should, it absolutely should – it needs not just a huge star but also a beautiful star who will bring along the narrative of: "Look, this actor didn't care about her looks, and she bravely played this role, clap, clap, clap". In the West, this is the kind of narrative that wins Oscars.
Also, there is the extra-textual angle, the "this could happen to anyone" angle. An acid attack isn't just the domain of a certain kind of woman from a certain section of society. You could be Deepika freaking Padukone and this could – heaven forbid! – still happen to you. So one could argue that this kind of casting is especially significant, because it also makes us consider an extreme end of victimhood — a big-time movie star whose very livelihood depends on looks.
But all this rationalisation is the work of the brain. It's logic. Emotion is different. It comes from the heart, from the gut – and there's something disturbing about seeing Deepika Padukone wear all these fancy frocks while promoting a movie that takes its title from the splash of acid on skin. In one, she wore a dress with blue checks and wore dangly gold earrings. In another, she wore something black and frilly and BDSM-y. In the latter appearance, she shared the stage with Laxmi Agarwal. She also shared the stage with her (invisible) stylist.
Look, I don't have the answers, okay? All I know is what I am feeling, a very contradictory kind of feeling, and that's what this hand-wringing is all about. I love seeing Deepika Padukone all dressed up. It's just that, in this particular case, it feels… not wrong, but weird, maybe? This is not logical, my brain tells me. If you are okay with Deepika Padukone's husband playing that slum-boy and reverting to his outrageous fashions while promoting that film, then why is this any different? It's like freedom of expression, right? You are either for it or against it. You can't be for it, but with exceptions. I know, I know.
And this is the other thing. Watching beautiful people on screen is one of the great pleasures of the movies. Unless you are a certified grouch who only watches Uzbekistani neo-realist cinema, you will agree that we slip into dark theatres to see the light bounce off these beautiful faces. But when these beautiful people un-beautify themselves, it feels… unfair! Like fame, like money, the true value of beauty is understood only by those who do not have it, and when Charlize Theron un-beautifies herself in Monster, when Elizabeth Taylor un-beautifies herself in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and yes, when Deepika Padukone un-beautifies herself in Chhapaak, they seem to be telling the rest of us: "I can make myself look like you, but whatever you do, you'll never be able to look like me."
This is not a complaint. The gift of genetics is what it is. And what a terrible world it would be if these instances of exceptional beauty did not exist. But I think I am feeling this unease only with this film, Chhapaak, because it's not just about a beautiful actor un-beautifying herself, but about a beautiful actor un-beautifying herself in the most extreme manner. Being un-beautiful is one thing. A lot of us are perfectly at peace with the perfectly average faces we see in the mirror. But this story is about a violently unnatural manner of de-beautification, and for this to reach us with a "star goes de-glam" narrative and with stylish skirts…
That's what I'm trying to make my peace with. In other words, how do we make peace with the fact that, post-Chhapaak, Deepika Padukone will be off to her next movie set and then to the Cannes red carpet, while Laxmi Agarwal's life will continue to be what it is? Or is the answer simply that there is no peace to be made, because this is not even an issue in the first place, and this is the business of cinema, and it is what it is?