Deepika Padukone-starrer Chhapaak has been in the news since the time the movie was announced early last year. Based on the life of Laxmi Agarwal, an acid-attack survivor and activist who led the PIL for ban on acid sale in India, Chhapaak was written and directed by Meghna Gulzar.
The movie, which not only stars the biggest female star in the country but also is produced by her, had created awareness and begun conversations around acid attack even before it hit the theatres on January 10, 2020.
Although Deepika’s show of support for the protestors at the Jawaharlal Nehru University last week had led to a backlash against the actor on social media, Chhapaak has garnered attention globally.
Laxmi is Malti in Chhapaak, and Deepika does justice to her character, as does Vikrant Massey who plays Amol (representing activist Alok Dixit). But the real star of the film is Meghna Gulzar, who exceeds expectation after 2018’s Raazi.
In Chhapaak, Meghna’s win is not in what she did, but what she did not. The scope of drama was too tempting in Chhapaak as it unfolds in Delhi and weaves in stories of women across the country. Malti herself is a young, naïve girl when her story begins, easy to give up after the brutal attack. Yet, we never see Malti trying to kill herself or breaking down. Meghna portrays Malti as the survivor - not the victim – as Laxmi herself has repeatedly stated.
And in Meghna’s safe hands, Malti is the phoenix rising from ashes over the years, and later becomes a symbol of resistance for her fellow-survivors. A scene in which another acid attack survivor hoping that she looks like Alia Bhatt after surgery reiterates their hopefulness regardless of the tragedy life has thrown at them.
A long journey
Malti’s journey begins in 2005 and ends in 2013 in the film. Despite being depressed initially after the attack, Malti picks up whatever strength she has left to fight a system that silently supports acid violence.
Despite a documentary-like tone in places, Chhapaak does not distance itself from the day-to-day realities of the survivors of this heinous crime. Although the protagonist works at an NGO which works for acid attack survivors’ rehabilitation, she is often more worried due to lack of stable income. Yet, once she meets other survivors who face not just the physical trauma but the stigma on caste and social class, Malti rejigs her priorities.
When Malti’s brother falls sick with Tuberculosis and her father gives in to alcoholism, Chhapaak’s narrative flows through emotions but without dramatics. When Anmol disagrees on celebrating till acid is officially banned, Malti reminds him that small victories are important; there is no better way to show how resilience defeats indifference.
The larger picture
Chhapaak’s charm is not in its portrayal of acid attack survivors alone. It’s about the smaller things – like how an elderly Sikh man helps the screaming Malti (Dilwalon ki Dilli, your heart would say), how the attacker Babbu tries to ‘console’ Malti’s mother in the hospital, and a casual comment that unless the victim dies, nothing major happens in gender-based violence. Government’s apathy towards survivors of acid attack is subtly hinted when Malti tells a prospective employer that there is no ‘box’ like ‘handicapped’ for applicants who are acid attack survivors.
The film also points out the complications in the legal system which gives too many loopholes for culprits to get out of jail and lead a normal life, while their victims’ lives are changed forever. The defending lawyer’s jibe that Malti’s life was not threatened by the attack makes you think – do survivors of gender-based violence not deserve the kind of mass protests and fast-tracked legal assistance?
After years of struggles, Malti does win her case – 10 years of imprisonment for her attacker and regulated sale of acid in India. Yet, Chhapaak does not let you leave the theatre with closure - no, it ends with another acid attack, this time on a bride getting ready for her wedding in Chandigarh who is later shown to succumb to her injuries. Chhapaak may not be Uyare; but it is not a film you can forget for a long time.