Whenever an acid attack occurs, the public’s interest lies in viewing the woman’s Before and After photos. However sympathetic the gaze, the attention becomes voyeuristic; the horror the attack inspires in us is proportional to how much of the woman’s beauty has been erased. Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak, which is based on the real life story of Laxmi Agarwal, makes an important choice by not beginning with Malti (Deepika Padukone) as she was before the attack. Instead, we’re introduced to her as a young woman who’s desperate for a job because her disfigured face has made it impossible for her to get one.
This immediately breaks down to the audience a survivor’s reality. The attack goes beyond impacting appearance and marriage prospects; it threatens their ability to earn a livelihood in a society that only measures a woman’s worth by her beauty. It’s a point that Laxmi Agarwal makes powerfully in her TedX talk here, while narrating her journey. Chhapaak is mostly faithful to Laxmi’s story (yes, including the religion of the assailant), except that Laxmi was 15 when she was attacked while Malti is 19 in the film. The change makes sense since it’s the same actor playing the younger and older Malti, and 15 would have been too tough to pull off for Deepika.
The film begins in 2012, when public anger over the Nirbhaya case had exploded on the streets. As the media tracks the protests, a man urgently shoves a photograph in front of the camera. His daughter has been attacked with acid, but that case hasn’t attracted any outrage. The subject of Chhapaak is hugely depressing, and there’s no getting away from it. It’s especially so when you believe in raising a daughter who speaks her mind and who isn’t afraid to say ‘no’. It raises the question – are there enough parents raising their sons to accept a ‘no’?
But Meghna also looks beyond the pain, to give Malti and the other real-life acid attack survivors who are part of the cast a few light-hearted moments in their sisterhood. Deepika is exceptional, her speech and body language closely matching Laxmi’s; there are only two scenes in the film when she completely gives in to her emotions. One when she’s attacked and another when she sees her disfigured face for the first time. The understated performance builds up Malti as a quiet force, difficult to subdue despite how fragile she seems. The actor only falters as the 19-year-old Malti, who appears towards the end. The skittishness to establish her youth seems a tad forced.
The prosthetic make-up work is excellent, as is the sensitive cinematography by Malay Prakash. The camera never rests on the faces of the acid attack survivors in a bid to excite our sense of horror. There are only two tracks in the film and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy manage to make the music moving, without overdoing the pathos.
Vikrant Massey plays Amol, who’s on a mission to stop acid attacks. The character is based on journalist-turned-activist Alok Dixit, with whom Laxmi has a daughter. The romance unfolds gently but doesn’t take over the film. Malti’s case, fought by a determined woman lawyer (Aparna Bhat in real life, played by Madhurjeet Sarghi), remains the focus all through. The court room scenes are realistic, without bombastic and melodramatic lines being thrown around. Basheer (Vishal Dahiya), whose advances Malti rejects in the film, has a female accomplice just as Naeem Khan did in real life. However, there is no explanation for why the woman, too, was not sentenced. At one point, Malti becomes a TV news anchor but we don’t get to know why she’s still looking for a job later. The timeline shifts between the incidents in Malti’s life just after the attack and the long court battle she subsequently fights – and in doing so, there are some gaps in the story that surface after you’ve gotten over how hard the film hits you.
The 2019 Malayalam film Uyare, in which actor Parvathy played an acid attack survivor, was about Pallavi, a pilot with a possessive boyfriend. The film realistically traced the trajectory of their relationship, co-dependent to begin with and later turning toxic, at last establishing on screen that an all consuming love like this is not love at all. However, towards the end, it somewhat turned into a fairy-tale. Chhapaak, too, strives to be positive, giving Malti the taste of a court victory and fulfilment in her personal life. But Meghna does not end the film with Malti – the disconcerting scene after that shows that the fight is far from over.
Chhapaak is neither a happy weekend watch nor a film on ‘woman empowerment’ headlined by a male star. For these reasons, it may not set the box-office on fire. But it’s a film that deserves to be watched because a) it forces us to look at a reality that only appears as a tiny column in the newspaper, and b) it’s good cinema.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.