Deepika Padukone-starrer Chhapaak, based on the real-life story of acid attack survivor and activist Laxmi Agarwal, is all set for release in a few days. The Bollywood movie has already garnered attention as acid attacks – while a major crime in India – have rarely found place in Indian cinema.
The big budget marketing and star power of Deepika, who has also turned (co)producer with Chhapaak, have finally got the spotlight on acid attacks.
However, less than a year ago, a Malayalam film did the same – it showcased the life of an acid attack survivor, and with great success.
Uyare, which focuses on the life of a young, ambitious woman before and after an acid attack, was released in April 2019. Manu Ashokan’s directorial debut starred acclaimed South Indian actress Parvathy Thiruvoth, who had also starred in Bollywood movie Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017) with Irrfan Khan. Incidentally, Parvathy - who does not mince words about social issues - was often trolled online before Uyare stole the audience’s heart.
With the impending release of Chhapaak, MAKERS India takes a look at Uyare (which translates into height) and how it set standards high.
An Ambitious, Unapologetic Heroine
Uyare begins in Kerala and moves to Mumbai and Delhi for a bit as the story progresses. Parvathy’s character, Pallavi Raveendran, is a confident, ambitious college student who dreams of becoming a pilot.
When Pallavi gets admission at a pilot training centre in Mumbai, her boyfriend Govind (Asif Ali) – who is possessive and chauvinistic to the core – is disgruntled. His disappointment at his lack of growth in career and insecurity of being away from Pallavi make him emotionally abusive; however, she bears with him. Even though she is scared of him, Pallavi believes she owes it to him to tolerate his nature because he was there for her at a time when nobody else was.
Despite the red flags, she starts a new life in Mumbai. Her romantic relationship keeps becoming more and more toxic – till one day, the jilted lover boy comes all the way from Kerala to Mumbai, and humiliates her in front of her friends.
She breaks up with him, saying, “I want to be like me at least from now on; not the me that you want me to be but the me that I want to be. Love me only if you can love that me as well.”
But Govind is not happy with Pallavi evolving into her own person, not keeping him as the centre of her life. He throws acid on her face, disfiguring her permanently. Yet, what hurts Pallavi the most is that her dream of becoming a pilot ends there, as she is declared physically unfit even after treatment.
Very rarely have we seen a female character being unforgiving in Indian cinema. In fact, raped women on screen have ended up falling in love with their rapists, or killing themselves for losing their “honour”.
Pallavi chooses a different path: she wants justice, not revenge. She goes to court, but when her lawyer tells her that the reality is that Govind may be not punished at all (due to lack of evidence) or that the case may take months or years, Pallavi says – with more anger than grief – that she is willing to bear with having to hide her face and give up her dream, but she will take the case forward. “If an enemy had done this, I may not have pursued him,” she adds, ringing in the message that love does not always make one blind.
NOT a damsel in distress
Needless to say, the scope for melodrama is huge in Uyare. But due credit goes to the scriptwriter duo Bobby-Sanjay for telling Pallavi’s story with dignity. Her depression, loss of confidence, and later resilience, are shown not in desperate cries but in a song that tells how real people pick themselves up.
That’s probably the best part of Uyare: the realness of its characters. While a female-centric story, it does not make monsters out of men. The male characters in Uyare are as real as they get. Pallavi’s father supports her throughout. He is particular that their middle-class background does not affect the dream of his motherless daughter. And when that dream is shattered, he holds her hand through the next battle.
The villain is also not a devil incarnate. Govind is someone we all know - just a deeply flawed man; not a psychopath. He tears up when Pallavi leaves for Mumbai; he shamelessly defends himself after attacking her. He is the product of a culture that actively encourages toxic masculinity. When his career is failing, dominating Pallavi makes him feel more confident. Her dedication makes him feel validated; so accepting her rejection is out of question for him. His obsession about her – and the anger at her changing her hairstyle without asking him– is the result of a mindset that makes properties out of women’s bodies.
As Pallavi slowly gets her life back after the attack, the scope for a “saviour” is tempting. But the airline owner Vishal Rajasekharan (played by Tovino Thomas), who offers Pallavi an opportunity to be an air hostess, is not a knight in shining armour – because Pallavi is not a damsel in distress.
Despite the stigma she will have to face forever, Pallavi is the confident young woman every girl wants to grow up to be. As the end credits roll, Pallavi is flying again, because she was not ready to give up. What better message can survivors of violence give the world?