A bit of hand-wringing about Deepika Padukone and ‘Chhapaak’

The actor gets inspired by a brutality that we shouldn’t, as a nation, ever forget

Nothing about Deepika Padukone is zany or outlandish. From her debut double role in Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007), in which Shah Rukh Khan (also in double role) romanced her characters in the ’60s as well as the Noughties, Padukone has hoisted the Bollywood ideal of a perfect heroine almost singlehandedly in the past 12 years she has been acting in Hindi films. Instead of glibness and bluster, she relies on tactfulness. She wears classic gowns and saris, and also always an easy, sparkling, all’s-well-with-the-world smile.

Acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal waits for a fashion show as part of a campaign to spread the message ‘Stop Acid Sale’, in Thane.

So her next film based on the life of acid attack survivor and activist Laxmi Agarwal, which she is also producing, is a surprise—and perhaps a good enough index of the fact that Bollywood’s star actors want demanding roles as much as they need post-millennial standards of what’s beautiful to retain their currency. Meghna Gulzar, who has won accolades for the Alia Bhatt-leading Raazi (2018), will direct this Laxmi Agarwal biopic titled Chappak, to be released in theatres in 2020. The teaser poster Padukone released on social media reveals nothing more than fine prosthetics, but Padukone’s choice makes me want to say, go girl!

India lives with the face of Laxmi Agarwal —and of other thousands of women who have survived acid attacks by spiteful men, like Lalita Ben Basi, Haseena Hussain, Kavita Barum, Monica Singh, Resham Khan, Pramodini Roul, Sonali Mukherjee, Aarti Thakur and Reshma Quereshi. They are horrific tragedies we have gotten used to—we are the world’s capital of acid attacks on women, followed by Bangladesh, Pakistan and the UK. West Bengal had the highest number of acid attacks in the country according to a report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2016, and according to the Kolkata-based Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI), a non-profit dedicated to activism and support for survivors, there have been 3,782 survivors since 1999, a majority of whom are women. As a nation, we can’t ever forget this ongoing, everyday brutality. A Bollywood film is a foolproof way to keep ourselves updated. Because Chappak will be based on a real lifestory, and faces of women who have survived acid attacks have become so familiar to us, Padukone has a huge challenge on her hands. It is a breakthrough for a Bollywood heroine to have decided to play the role and also own the film as a producer. It is also Padukone’s break from the classic, safe mould she seems to have mastered.

A still from the documentary film ‘Saving Face’ by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge.

Acid attack is not new on screen. Documentaries have been made on them the world over. The Pakistani documentary short film Saving Face (2012) directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge won an Emmy Award and the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. The film was inspired from the life of acid victim Fakhra Younus, who committed suicide in 2012. I have wept both times I watched (American director) David Lynch’s Elephant Man (1980). Actor John Hurt played the cruelly misformed John Merrick—a man whose rare disease was exploited as “the original elephant man” by the people running a Victorian freak show. Lynch shot the film in black-and-white, and Hurt is brilliant in the role (he lost the Best Actor Oscar to Robert De Niro for Raging Bull). In his anguished eyes and mournful body language, the actor projected a humanity past the prosthetics that embodied the pain of Merrick.

A still from the film ‘Elephant Man’ by David Lynch.

In Smile (2005), a smaller but heartwarming film by Jeffrey Kramer, an American high school student Katie signs up for a trip to China, where she meets Lin, a girl with a facial deformity. Lin almost doesn’t show her face in the film, but both the girls form a friendship that changes both their lives. American director Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (2001), a remake of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes (1997), is an entertaining, and in some parts, absurdly superficial thriller in which the lead role of a womanising publishing magnate played by Tom Cruise emerges from a near-fatal car crash with a disfigured face. Then, through a miracle of cosmetic surgery, his supreme good looks, which Cruise usually gloats in, are restored. But thankfully, some existential questions continue to haunt him, which attempt to be the film’s thriller element as well as soul.

Facial disfigurement, as opposed to disability, isn’t easy to portray on screen because it is simply difficult to get past the immediate horror of seeing it. There are several examples of film directors who have portrayed disability with powerfully realistic details, such as Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw (2014) and recently, the moorings of a blind man’s heart in Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun (2018). The badly overacted examples far outnumber the good ones. But we have never seen disfigurement in Hindi cinema.

Having talked to many of them in the past 15 years, throughout my career as a journalist, I have sensed that more than all the support they need, medically and financially, what they wish for is a sense of normalcy—to work, to laugh, to be part of communities, to have friends and to have coffee at the neighbourhood café. Padukone and Gulzar, and of course the writers of the film, have a remarkable opportunity to articulate this desire, to go beyond the proclivity of all biopic makers in Bollywood to make monotone hero stories that rest entirely on adversity and climactic triumph.

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