Director: Meghna Gulzar
Cast: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey
Duration: 2 hours
Chhapaak begins on an uncanny note. An anti-government protest is violently lathi-charged by the Delhi Police. So far, so topical. Now for the rest of the scene: It’s December 2012, and the country has erupted in the wake of the Delhi gang rape. People are furious. They want resignations. An Aaj Tak journalist asks her cameraman to capture the chaos. But an old man blocks the frame with a photograph of his daughter’s disfigured face. Amol (Vikrant Massey), the founder of an NGO that rehabilitates acid attack survivors, appears and addresses the old man in a way that pointedly taunts the media: Uncle, let it go, why will they care about acid attacks at such a moment? His sarcasm jolts the journalist, who then becomes instrumental in shining the spotlight on Malti (Deepika Padukone), the protagonist of Chhapaak based on real-life acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal.
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This opening scene is small but uncomfortable. Some might say it presents a tragic truth, where victims are forced to measure their victim-ness against one another to earn the right of justice. For instance, the Mayur Market attack on Malti is depicted at least twice in slow motion. Towards the end, the makers prefer to recreate the scene and buildup in its entirety instead of resorting to a powerful courtroom monologue. We also see various stages of Malti’s burns in the hospital through the investigating officer’s eyes – as if to remind us of the heinous masculinity of a crime aimed solely at defacing a woman in an optical culture that equates societal worth with physical beauty. It’s a calculated choice that the woman is played by a mainstream actress, from a film industry notorious for fetishizing her glamour over all else; this way, the transformation hits the average viewer harder. Perhaps the incident is repeated to also remind us that, compared to other forms of human violence, acid attacks more directly expose the flaws of a legislative system that turns a blind eye to safety in favour of capitalism. A close equivalent to the political nature of this crime is America’s mass-shootout epidemic – a blatant consequence of the country’s weak gun-control laws.
A storyteller’s rage is not a bad thing. But there’s something very methodical about it here. You can distinctly sense the decision-making by director Meghna Gulzar and writer Atika Chohan
Others might say the opening is bitter and self-defeating – it trivializes the more “mainstream” crime (rape) by pitting it against the lesser-hyped one. You can almost hear the writing say: While you were up in arms about Nirbhaya for years, those like Malti were overlooked. It later becomes clear that Amol is that kind of guy. He has the ghamand of an indie filmmaker. As a sincere but desperately cynical social activist, he wouldn’t think twice about advertising his battle at the cost of another. Consciously or not, Chhapaak adopts Amol’s tone.
The film is angry, and therefore irrational and curt, as though it expects us to understand its importance by virtue of having the guts to exist. It is in a hurry to lash out, which is why the compression of Malti’s journey – from the manhunt to the optics of the sentencing to her simultaneous eight-year-long PIL appeal for a nationwide acid ban – into two hours feels like an expository highlights package. The filmmaking is unmistakably biopic-like and heavy-handed. We don’t quite get to know Malti beyond the legacy of her life’s events. The story doesn’t pause to know her either. She exists – in a thinner texture of flesh and blood – mostly because Laxmi does.
The screenplay overcompensates for the pace by playing up the volume of gender tropes. The men in the background are either stereotypical idiots or unrealistic angels
A storyteller’s rage is not a bad thing. But there’s something very methodical about it here. You can distinctly sense the decision-making by director Meghna Gulzar and writer Atika Chohan. Their goal is to make a movie that reveals how the struggle of an acid attack survivor never ends – the scars are literal, the social stigma is permanent. Hence, the structure of the narrative is inherently nihilistic. It is such that every time Malti aches to feel ordinary again, she is pulled back by a legacy she didn’t ask for. The intent is right, but the execution feels awkward. It begins with her looking for a job seven years later after the attack. Amol hires her, Malti settles in, until an interview with a new survivor forces her to remember 2005 and its aftermath. The flashback, too, is full of short-lived victories. When the perpetrator is sentenced, a loophole in the law gives him easy bail for years. When the judiciary agrees to address her PIL, the government drags its feet for years. Even when she celebrates a small breakthrough, Amol shuts down the party with his film-critic-level misanthropy. When all else fails, there’s her ailing family and dire financial state. Even the final shot of the film is explicitly added to cancel out the happy ending that precedes it. Don’t be fooled, we’re relentlessly told.
As a result, the timeline feels oddly cold-blooded. It leaps from one version of Malti to another. The screenplay overcompensates for the pace by playing up the volume of gender tropes. The men in the background are either stereotypical idiots (male reporters ask insensitive questions) or unrealistic angels (the surgeon is annoyingly cheerful; the lawyer’s husband serves tea and parathas to the “ladies of the house” so that she can save the world). Furthermore, the makers are so focused on trying to convey information about the crime that they constantly surround Malti’s lawyer with random people – friends, interns, family – so that she can use them as a medium to explain the case to us. The staging is too obvious.
Despite the film being nowhere as effective as Meghna Gulzar’s brilliant Talvar and tense Raazi, the word ‘Chhapaak’ feels like a natural fit in its protagonist’s vocabulary. If only the film trusted her silences
On the other hand, the film’s goal is also to be hopeful and empathetic. The treatment is deliberately designed to treat Malti as a normal person – and by extension, as a regular movie heroine. The background score tells us what and how to think, while playback songs appear to be composed as conventionally as possible to make Malti feel like there’s no discrimination towards her character. At one point, a gush of breeze artfully displaces her hair just as they lock gazes. The idea is noble, but this tone is at odds with the restless structure of Malti’s journey. One can argue that this treatment highlights the two sides of Malti – the one the world needs to see, as opposed to the one she wants to be.
The reason I’m even in a position to ponder over the intent of Chhapaak is producer-actor Deepika Padukone’s lead turn as Malti. Apart from Parvathy’s clutter-breaking act as an acid attack survivor with flying ambitions in the Malayalam drama Uyare, and real-life survivor Anmol Rodriguez in the short film Auntyji, there’s no real point of reference. Padukone delivers a dignified performance in a role that deserved more bandwidth than its sentimental symbolism. The little touches are nice: Malti laughs with pursed lips, thereby evoking a face that had to reconstruct its smile in a way that hurt the least. She speaks less, but places more gravity on her words (because maybe that’s all she has) – a trait that allows the dialogue-ish nature of her lines sound organic. Her chemistry with Vikrant Massey’s Amol is a bit farfetched, but it looks endearing because Padukone plays Malti like a girl who knows that his attitude completes her: His idealism forces her to balance it out by being a tender, soft-spoken – and better – woman. She is the ice to his fire, even though she wears fire on her face. And despite the film being nowhere as effective as Meghna Gulzar’s brilliant Talvar and tense Raazi, the word ‘Chhapaak’ feels like a natural fit in its protagonist’s vocabulary. If only the film trusted her silences. Maybe that was its third and most visible goal all along: Chhapaak – “the sound of a splash” – being heard, loudly, with reverb, so that silence is no longer an option.