Director: Meghna Gulzar
Cast: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey, Madhurjeet Sarghi, Vaibhavi Upadhyaya and Payal Nair
Amidst the bawal that is surrounding Chhapaak, courtesy Deepika’s unexpected show of solidarity with JNU students, Meghna Gulzar’s film is just like its title suggests, Chhapaak—like a splash, spreading its reach slowly but deeply. And surely reminding you of the corrosive impact the vengeful act of acid throwing has on the lives of acid attack victims.
From scene one she contextualizes the issue that in media’s eye is nowhere close to the gravity of heinous crimes like rape. The film opens with protest marches against the barbaric Nirbhaya rape case. Soon a disfigured face is thrust before the TV camera. Yes, indeed, it’s the tale of scarred faces trying to keep their spirit together. More importantly, it follows the life of Laxmi Agarwal who has been the face of acid attack survivors, their plight as well as their long winding crusade for a long time.
Yet behind that face is a human story, behind the headlines is a young girl with dreams and stars in her eyes. Do we meet that girl? Yes, even though the name has been changed to Malti and the face is that of Deepika Padukone. The beautiful superstar who has also coproduced the film lends both dignity and humanness to her part. Be it as the victim and later as a crusader for the cause, she just becomes this woman who first hides her face and then decides to take on life chin up. Other actors especially Vikrant Massey as the man driven by passion and zeal to help such victims through his NGO is remarkably impressive. Their simmering silent love story too has the tenderness of what feels like real love. The real lawyer Aparna Bhat, may not have got her due credit, her reel part gets due footage. Madhurjeet Sarghi as crusader lawyer is on point; empathetic and professional like is her persona. Since the film puts on record the long protracted battle of such victims, many legal points and lacunas are referred to. One learns how Section 326 under which such attacks are charged provided for mild punishment. And laws have become stricter only lately in light of Justice Verma report and PIL filed by Laxmi.
Yet Meghna doesn’t weigh you down with legalese and you remain invested in the story as a viewer wanting to know more about Malti. The director in Meghna resists the easy way out and doesn’t go for our tear-ducts. There isn’t an iota of melodrama to her art of story- telling. Yet you can feel the goose-bumps not just in the scene where acid is thrown on the face of Malti followed by a long lingering scream, but many more. Of course, unlike Meghna’s previous film Raazi, a nail biting thriller, Chhapaak is not meant to keep you on tenterhooks. Rather, it is constructed like a real story and unfolds in a similar fashion. Perhaps, the narrative runs the danger of becoming tedious and too message-oriented. This is where Meghna’s real directorial dexterity surfaces. Moving between past and present, what could have been mere collation of court judgments transforms into an engaging storyline.
Why do men throw acid on their unsuspecting victims? Jilted and spurned lovers who want to put these girls in their place…in a deeply patriarchal society, we all know the reasons. Meghna adds another one and points out how the victims are girls who wanted to break shackles. But she doesn’t rub it in too hard or harsh. There is certain gentleness to her approach. Songs by Gulzar wafting in and out embellish the narrative in a fashion that such a story needs. Ever so firmly Meghna ends the film on sobering thought and figures pointing out how the latest attack was as recent as 2019.
If cinema is not just entertainment for you, watch this tale which is no sob story either. Only it will take you a long time to shirk away both the scream and the smile playing on Deepika’s face. As Deepika herself put it, trauma and triumph define Chhapaak.