What Deepika Padukone’s Chhapaak Misses Out On, Parvathy’s Uyare Gets Right

Bollywood

What Deepika Padukone’s Chhapaak Misses Out On, Parvathy’s Uyare Gets Right

Illustration: Arati Gujar

There are two moments in debutant director Manu Ashokan’s Uyare, a Malayalam drama centred around an acid attack survivor, that cleverly underline the apathy that the Indian mentality reserves for acid attacks. In the first scene, Pallavi (Parvathy Thiruvothu) walks in on her attacker’s father trying to convince her father to withdraw the case against his son – the possessive ex-boyfriend who disfigured her face in a fit of rage. The legal case is hindering his job prospects, he pleads. Pallavi, her face partially hidden with a dupatta, wordlessly drags up a chair in front of him; she bares her scarred face and stares back at him in what can only be described as an act of simmering resistance. In a matter of seconds, he lowers his eyes and looks away, unable to face the extent of the violence that his son has caused. Pallavi doesn’t have that option: Even as the world continues to undermine her trauma, her face will forever bear witness to its remnants.

The second time Pallavi, once an aspiring pilot, removes the veil around her face is by the window seat of an airplane. As the plane readies for take off, she fishes out her phone, smiles at the person staring back at her, and takes a selfie. Pallavi, then, posts that photo on her Facebook, (a rare and wonderful utilisation of social media in film) signalling in a way the reignition of the self-worth that her attacker intended to rob away from her. It’s another act of resistance alright, but this time around, her anger has evaporated. Pallavi embraces her face, instead of hiding it for the first time since the tragedy. Both these scenes, in essence, go to the heart of the enormity of powerlessness that grips an acid-attack survivor: How do you realign your identity with a face that has sullied it?

Uyare

In Chhapaak, Malti is attacked by an older neighbour whose romantic overtures she rejected, while Uyare’s Pallavi becomes a victim of an acid attack after she breaks up with her overbearing, toxic boyfriend.

Kalpaka Films/ Indywood Distribution Network

Last year, Uyare marked the first time a mainstream Indian film featured an acid-attack victim as its lead, and last week, Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak – inspired by the life of Laxmi Agarwal – joined the ranks. These two movies though continue to be an exception – filmmakers rarely tend to warm up to narratives of such uncomfortable gendered violence. At best, an acid attack warrants a mention, which often doesn’t do justice to its viciousness. Case in point: Back in 2016, AR Murugadoss’ Akira briefly featured a scene involving an acid attack that the titular Akira (Sonakshi Sinha) witnessed when she was a child. In that sense, Uyare and Chhapaak are notable achievements, especially given the Indian audience’s disinterest toward issue-based cinema – movies which stray away from conventional distractions of either song-and-dance or a male star.

Both Uyare and Chhapaak are shouldered almost single-handedly by its female performances, boast of fairytale endings, and simultaneously call attention to a pervasive social evil. Yet despite a similar premise, these two films are severely distinct from the other in what they end up achieving. Gulzar’s Chhapaak, that rides on a measured turn by Deepika Padukone, chooses to take a bird’s-eye view by juxtaposing Malti’s personal journey of rebuilding her life with the legal impediments that enable the rising numbers of acid attacks. At one point, Chhapaak even hints at the fact that these attacks have undertones of class and caste dominance.

Uyare and Chhapaak are notable achievements, especially given the Indian audience’s disinterest toward issue-based cinema.

Moreover, Gulzar has a lightness of touch that ensures that even when the film’s narrative unmasks uncomfortable truths – the easy availability of acid, the unfairly expensive reconstruction surgeries, and their glaring inaccessibility – it doesn’t come across as strident. Chhapaak works well as a fact-dispensing machine that examines the societal culpability of acid attacks, but Uyare concerns itself solely with unravelling the origins of an acid attack in the first place. Ashokan does that through an exploration of the arrogance of masculinity.

In both these films, the perpetrators are familiar, men known to the survivors. In Chhapaak, Malti is attacked by an older neighbour whose romantic overtures she rejected, while Uyare’s Pallavi becomes a victim of an acid attack after she breaks up with her overbearing, toxic boyfriend. Both the attacks are effectively the product of a masculinity that is unable to tolerate a woman’s agency. By relegating Malti’s attacker to the fringes in Chhapaak, Gulzar chooses to render his motives to an insignificant detail, holding instead the society that fosters him accountable. The only drawback is that, without an exploration of what drives the male psyche to commit such a crime, at times, it feels as if Chhapaak is presenting an incomplete picture.

Chhapaak

Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak, that rides on a measured turn by Deepika Padukone, chooses to take a bird’s-eye view by juxtaposing Malti’s personal journey of rebuilding her life with the legal impediments that enable acid attacks.

Fox Star Studios

Uyare trumps this complaint by placing Pallavi’s attacker in the thick of its proceedings and by extension revealing the depths of male depravity that regards women as objects that can be either owned or punished. But where Uyare gains over Chhapaak is in its interrogation of the conventional standards of beauty. In the film, Pallavi is hired as an air-hostess, a profession that places a premium on female attractiveness; a profession that for the same reason is out of consideration for acid-attack survivors. This distinction between which profession “suits” an acid attack survivor and which doesn’t is also dependent on what the world around them is comfortable with. It’s far easier to look away from a scarred face when it is backstage – it’s precisely why the brief moment where Chhapaak casts Malti as a TV anchor, another profession that equates ambition with attractiveness, feels thrilling.

In a way, it’s the intolerance toward a woman’s physical appearance and her pluck, that spurs perpetrators to resort to this kind of violence as well. Rejection is merely not the underlying cause – it’s the rejection by an attractive woman or one who dared to exhibit her ambition that rattles egos. An acid attack then, isn’t only directed towards defacing a woman’s face and aspirations but also erasing her from the public conscience. Insisting that acid attack survivors rehabilitate themselves in jobs that are convenient for the society, falls exactly with this line of thinking.

Often, Chhapaak struggles to make that connection. But by placing its protagonist in a profession that requires her to be seen, Uyare drives home this crucial point: It’s impossible for a survivor to accept themselves if the world around them continues to run away from them.

(Uyare is available to stream on Netflix.)

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