Big Screen Movies

'Chhapaak' is earnest about its ‘social message’, but cinematically it does not rise above the propaganda

Stills from Chhapaak.

Stills from Chhapaak.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

It seems to be saying: Look, we tackled a taboo subject. We even got a beautiful star to play the role of survivor. Don’t ask for more

Walking into the theatre to watch Chhapaak, I was apprehensive about how graphic the film might get, whether it would be very emotionally draining. As it transpires, Chhapaak lets off audiences lightly. It handles something as grim as acid attacks with an easy touch that doesn’t force the horror upon viewers. The emphasis throughout is on hope, optimism, renewal, and not on the mind-numbing dreadfulness of a woman’s face ravaged for as petty a reason as romantic rejection. Yet, it is exactly this determined Pollyanna approach that left me a little disturbed as I walked out.

A few days later, a fresh Deepika Padukone controversy erupted over a TikTok video in which the actor asks make-up influencer Faby to recreate the look of Malti, Chhapaak’s protagonist. Faby does so, to the peppy background beat of pop song ‘Uff Teri Ada’, pouts at the camera, then covers her scarred face with mock coyness. In those fast-forwarded few minutes, the video reveals not just its own insensitivity, but also unwittingly locates and echoes the exact problem that plagues Chhapaak — its superficiality. Which is why, even as one appreciates the obvious earnestness with which director Meghna Gulzar has created this ‘social message’ film, Chhapaak remains just that, never managing to rise above the propaganda.

The counter to such a critique will invariably be that of accessibility; that Chhapaak needs to appeal to the masses. And one doesn’t dispute this. The film will indeed succeed in taking the issue of acid attacks to nooks and crannies and audiences in a way that no social worker or government programme can. Yet, cinematically, it is sad that Chhapaak throws the game away so readily.

Low intensity

Take a film like Dangal (2016), as mass as you can make them. The conflict there is far simpler — a young woman seeks to enter the male-dominated sport of wrestling — and yet the intensity is never underplayed. Whether the ferocity of training and taunts the Phogat sisters confront, or Geeta coming to terms with her femininity and sexuality on the one hand and her father’s ambitions and harsh regimen on the other, it stays gritty even as it stays firmly in the ‘pop’ zone.

This intensity is entirely missing in Chhapaak, unless you count Vikrant Massey’s simmering looks as social worker Amol. Yet, the central issue here is many times more harrowing — men destroying women in a very specific way. That the film starts with the Nirbhaya protests indicates that Gulzar recognises the close relationship between rape and acid attack — the assault on female physicality, female desirability, everything that constitutes the feminine — yet she doesn’t explore this in any sustained or rigorous way.

Instead, one gets vignettes: mandatory mirror scene, throwing away pretty dupatta scene, turned away from umpteenth job scene. Through all this, Malti is serene. You could argue that her eternal cheerfulness shows that the attacker couldn’t kill her spirit. As a message, that’s laudable. As a movie, one wants to see the journey she took to reach this state of nirvana. It isn’t enough to show a little boy screaming when he suddenly sees Malti; a braver film would have tackled how Malti dealt with the brutal blow of knowing that her face is now frightening.

Stills from Chhapaak.

Stills from Chhapaak.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The film is based on Laxmi Agarwal’s inspiring real life, but not all survivors get the kind of financial support Agarwal got from her father’s employer. There’s a telling scene where a survivor tells Malti that she too wants a face like hers. Malti’s response is breezy: “Oh you just need more surgeries.” But that needs money, says her friend. “Oh, there’s the ₹3 lakh compensation,” says Malti, jauntily, cluelessly.

The thoughtlessness of that scene is breathtaking. In real life, the ₹3 lakh compensation — that survivors often don’t ever get — will barely cover a single surgery, never mind the seven or ten surgeries needed for facial reconstruction. And what about food, medicines, rent?

Agarwal has spoken of how she is often asked to walk the ramp but is not paid for it — clearly, designers imagine that just ‘allowing’ an acid attack survivor on ramps is enough. Their gesture pretends to say there is beauty even in scars, but the fact that they don’t pay her a real model’s fees negates the gesture. These are harsh facts, which are entirely missing from the film.

So pretty

And what about the loss of self-confidence and self-worth? What does it take to emerge from that, to build a new identity? How many years of counselling, how much pain? The real Agarwal spent eight years indoors — just reading about it made me claustrophobic, how did Laxmi live it? Ordinary women struggle to handle rejection, so what gives Malti the ability to receive with unruffled placidity Amol’s rejection of her love? One doesn’t grudge Malti this equanimity; one wants to know how she came by it. The film’s obsession with harmony extends even to Malti’s lawyer — whose husband is so perfect as to be entirely unreal.

Frustration, anger, impatience, jealousy, fear — these are ugly emotions but real ones. Even more so when one has been brutally attacked and scarred. The film airbrushes it all away, just as the TikTok video reduces acid scars to clever make-up. If you dish out positivity with the relentlessness of a Jaggi Vasudev, your film could be as dangerously misleading as Photoshopped fashion models are for teenage girls. And that frightens me. Chhapaak deals with a very real, very horrifying crime that destroys the faces, minds and lives of young women, but it deals with it in a very pretty and sweet way so that nobody comes away feeling that they have had too close a brush with real life.

It seems to be saying: Look, we tackled a taboo subject. We even got a beautiful star to play the role of survivor. Don’t ask for more.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 3:35:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/chhapaak-is-earnest-about-its-social-message-but-cinematically-it-does-not-rise-above-the-propaganda/article30643553.ece

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