It’s unfair to begin the review of a Meghna Gulzar film with a reference to her father. However, it’s also difficult not to, because Chhapaak ’s title track, written by him, has been playing on loop in my head, even a day after having watched the film. “ Koi chehra mita ke, aur aankh se hata ke; chandd chheente uda ke jo gaya: Chhapaak se pehchaan le gaya (Someone erased one’s face and turned one invisible, while leaving behind a splatter in the air; Took away the core of one’s being with a mere splash)”— by stringing together a few simple words Gulzar gets to the heart and soul of Laxmi Agarwal’s life, its horrors and struggles and those of many other acid attack survivors like her. “ Sab jhulas gaya (Everything got singed)”, is how he ends the song. It is indeed about life turning to ashes for Laxmi (Malti in the film) in the blink of an eyelid but also about how she rises from it, Phoenix-like; how a bottomless tragedy also sets her ashore, helps her find herself.
Even though she may have changed the names of the dramatis personae and made the narrative go back and forth in time, Meghna is scrupulous in following Laxmi’s journey in every possible detail — her own story, the people around her, her relationship with them, the various situations, challenges and dilemmas thrown at her, even the NGO Chhanv Foundation (Chhaya in the film), that she had been a part of, find a place on screen.
Despite the attempt to whip up minor controversies on social media, the perpetrator of the crime— Naeem Khan —doesn’t quite lose his religion or find himself converted to Hinduism in the film. Only his name changes to Babbu aka Bashir Khan. It’s to the credit of the writers— Meghna and Atika Chohan —that religion doesn’t become the defining point or the font of Babbu’s villainy. Nor does Babbu’s religion and community get demonised for his individual wrong doing. It’s a welcome change from the “violent Islamist” trap that recent Bollywood films keep falling into. Save one scene featuring Babbu’s rather evil looking mom, religion is treated in a matter of fact way. The transgressions of Babbu are religion-agnostic; they are to do with his own patriarchal mindset, the warped psyche, male toxicity and overtly possessive streak when it comes to Malti.
There are refreshing, radical departures on other fronts too in Chhapaak . The obvious one is overturning the notion of vanity associated with stardom. In eschewing a linear telling, the film ends up showing the real radiant face of its lead for the longest time, only towards the end. From the very start it doesn’t fight shy of showing the facial impairment caused by an acid attack, in all its unsightliness, with nary any relief. Yet it’s also not exploitative or manipulative. And, it’s to Deepika Padukone’s credit, who one is not used to “seeing” in this manner, that her Malti grows on you and somewhere down the road you cease to notice the disfigurement and take her for the person that she is.
- Director: Meghna Gulzar
- Cast: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey, Madhurjeet Sarghi
- Run time: 123 minutes
- Storyline: Based on the life of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal and her campaign to stop the sale of acid
The film also has a very real and wonderfully written male character – Amol, the NGO activist and Malti’s friend, confidant and more. Vikrant Massey is spot on in pinning down a modern crusader’s sense of despair, frustrations and cynicism. Only someone as bitter as Amol could very believably spell out the sad hierarchy in the gruesome crimes against women—“ Rape ke aage acid attack ki kya pooch (What say does an acid attack case have in front of rape)?” His seeming lack of humour is played off well against Malti's surprisingly sharp, though well-concealed wit. “Acid aap pe nahin, mujh pe phinka hai. Aur mujhe party karni hai (Acid was thrown at me, not you. And I want to party),” she takes the mickey out of the killjoy that he is. Or when she says of his stern ways, “ Wo sarkar thodi hain jo unse darein (He is not the government that we should be running scared of him)”. Call it zeitgeist but the film critics at the preview laughed aloud together at the unintended irony of these lines, given the contemporary political context.
The “silent pyaar ” between Amol and Malti casts a mellow shade. Malti herself comes across as a subdued person, complete with a shy smile and diffident demeanour. She is a woman of few words and it reflects in the spartan dialogue too.
In a way this is reflective of the film’s muted, low-key appeal at large. The cataclysmic incident later, Malti’s life ahead is all about the basic and the fundamental — several reconstructive surgeries, on going court cases and petition for ban on acid. There are no major troughs and ridges and the writers desist from injecting any additional drama into things either. The endemic societal patriarchy gets a throwaway, casual reference like the cop balking at the phone numbers of “boys” stored in Malti’s mobile, or in the scepticism about the case ever getting registered.
The script keeps moving, doesn’t dwell too long and pointedly at any juncture to stress on any point. Whether it’s the brother’s friends calling Malti a ghost worthy of being packed off to a circus or she packing away her jewellery because she doesn’t have the ears or nose to sport them on or sharing a candid, fun togetherness with her father who is drinking on the sly. Everything flows on.
It’s this sparseness, minimalism and austerity in the telling and an essential quietude that lend Chhapaak an emotional force of its own though some may end up finding it measured to a fault. The only excess the film indulges in, is FabIndia. The wardrobe of almost every character/actor appears to have been sourced from the store. And that makes for quite a visual splash.