By Poulomi Das Jan. 09, 2020
As Malti, an acid attack survivor, Deepika Padukone delivers a moving, invested performance in the uneven Chhapaak, without indulging in self-pity. It is to her credit that despite the prosthetics, her performance feels neither artificial nor gimmicky.
Back in 2006, Laxmi Agarwal – a minor attacked with acid by a 32-year-old man whose romantic overtures she’d rejected – filed a PIL in the Supreme Court to demand a ban on the sale of acid. The Supreme Court didn’t ban it, but instead regulated over-the-counter sale of acid in 2013. According to the guidelines, the volatile liquid couldn’t be sold to anyone under the age of 18, buyers had to furnish identity proof, and their transactional details were to be sent to the police within three days.
Seven years on, these regulations have done little to curb the rise of acid attacks: In 2017, 244 acid attacks were recorded and acid continues to be freely sold across the country. In fact, last Sunday, when a group of masked ABVP activists barged inside Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and attacked students, they were reportedly armed with acid. The timing alone, justifies the need for Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak, a film inspired by Agarwal’s fight, that trains its gaze on the viciousness of such gendered violence.
Chhapaak is the first time a mainstream Hindi film can boast of an acid attack survivor as its lead, although last year, Manu Ashokan’s Uyare, a Malayalam drama featured Parvathy in a similar role. In the film, Deepika Padukone plays Malti, an acid attack survivor whose face is left disfigured by an acid attack. The circumstances surrounding the attack are similar to how it unfolded in real life, but Gulzar alters the age of the victim: Malti is attacked when she is 19; Laxmi was barely 15.
The film opens with a protest in the aftermath of the December 2012 gangrape: The voices of the angry crowd protesting against the systemic apathy towards violence against women are promptly quelled by Delhi Police lathi-charging the protestors. The resemblance to events that have unfolded in the past few weeks is uncanny. In the next couple of scenes, Gulzar draws an interesting parallel between rape and acid attacks. Both are essentially acts of violence against women that cut across class and caste barriers and are often employed by perpetrators as punishment – the goal is to assert ownership over the bodies of victims. The director is conscious of this throughout Chhapaak and Malti’s body language (Padukone puts a visible effort to smiling, underlining that even an action as trivial as pursing one’s lips is work for acid attack victims) forms a crucial clue to both her tragedy and her healing.
Chhapaak is the first time a mainstream Hindi film can boast of an acid attack survivor as its lead.
When Malti is first introduced in Chhapaak, it has been seven years since the attack. Yet, her life remains burdened by the events of that day: Her court case is still dragging, as are the PIL hearings and rejection at job interviews have become a routine affair. Soon, she lands a job at an NGO headed by Amol (Vikrant Massey) that works with acid attack victims (the telephonic meet-cute between Amol and Malti is a nice touch). Chhapaak then goes into flashback mode when Malti visits the house of an acid-attack victim – a teenager who, like her, was attacked by a man for rejecting his advances.
Spanning the seven odd years between 2005 and 2013, alternating between the present and the past, the film covers an awful lot of ground in Malti’s recovery, counted out in seven expensive surgeries, her rehabilitation, the fondness she develops for Amol, and the isolated cases of acid attacks that Malti and Amol handle through their NGO. Yet, by focusing on everything, the film’s hurried screenplay (Chhapaak is co-written by Gulzar and Atika Chouhan) at times, ends up saying nothing. Moreover, the non-linear narrative, insistent on dumping information on the audience, works against the film.
Gulzar, especially, feels on unsure footing here, lacking a clarity of directorial voice that made Talvar and Raazi’s predictable arcs so rewarding. On more than one occasion, Chhapaak comes undone due to its utter reliance on technicalities – we learn about the legal impediments that make punishment against acid attacks a tricky affair, but the film is unclear about what it wants to make of it. The film’s spare commentary – the maximum punishment awarded to a perpetrator pales in comparison to the lifelong trauma of the victim and that acid attacks are still as prevalent today as they were in 2005 – stand the risk of becoming repetitive. And the director seems hesitant to delve either into the male psyche to dissect the heinous nature of such a crime or expand on how prevalent notions of beauty burden acid attack survivors, barely scratching the surface at times. In that sense, the effectiveness of Malti’s story is hindered by its larger social messaging.
Yet, Chhapaak earns its flourishes through Gulzar’s compassionate gaze, that guarantees that the film doesn’t pity Malti or work overtime in demanding sympathy for her. In the film, Malti seems almost disinterested in harping over the reason behind her attack and Gulzar relegates it to an almost insignificant detail that speaks volumes about the film’s intent (the decision to ditch a climactic monologue surprisingly works in Chhapaak’s favour). Even her attacker’s religion hardly becomes a primetime debate. Instead, what takes up a majority of the film’s runtime is Malti reclaiming that very same power her attacker wanted to rob her off. Much of it could have felt like wish-fulfillment had the film’s tone been didactic, but Gulzar and Padukone work in tandem to stray away from easy melodrama. Through it all, Chhapaak remains interested in how Malti views herself as much as it is in how the audience views her.
Both these things depend entirely on Padukone’s turn as Malti. The otherwise risk-averse actress rises to the occasion, delivering an invested performance that brings alive the inner insecurities, desires, and quiet optimism of someone forced to rebuild her life even when the film’s writing struggles to match up. It’s a performance that moves without calling attention to itself. There’s a scene where Malti and a co-worker – another acid attack survivor – walk around a supermarket giggling about the faces they want for themselves. Malti’s co-worker says she wants to look like Alia Bhatt. Malti, no stranger to reconstructive surgeries herself, quietly indulges her. It’s a brief moment that might seem silly on paper, but on screen, the actress’ mere presence transforms it into a portrait of hope amid hopelessness. It is to Padukone’s credit (the actress turns producer with Chhaapaak) that despite the prosthetics, her performance doesn’t feel like a gimmick.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.