“Chhapaak,” in Hindi, is the sound of liquid splashing into something. The episode is short and the effect unknown. But a splash made by a glass full of acid resonates forever in the victim’s body, mind and soul. This sound of the corrosive liquid splashing on the faces and bodies of numerous women in India is the motif of director Meghna Gulzar’s “Chhapaak.”
In the film, Deepika Padukone—who has previously played princesses and queens and orthodox Bollywood damsels—shuns all her glamor and glitz to take up the role of the acid attack survivor turned activist “Malti”. Sans designer dresses, exorbitant film sets, trending hairstyles, makeup, voluptuous choreography, and all the stuff associated with typical Bollywood divas, Deepika is left to solely rely on her acting, supported by Gulzar’s narrative skills, in a role she will probably forever be remembered for.
Based on the life of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal, Chhapaak centers around the 19-year-old high-schooler Malti who is attacked with acid for rejecting her pursuer. The 2005 incident in Delhi has Malti battling for years to get the culprits punished. Her struggle to fit into the society and daily routine after the incident leaves her deeply traumatized—both physically and mentally.
The film is basically about a crime and the following trials and tribulations to get the perpetrators punished. But as simple as the story sounds, writer/director Gulzar and co-writer Atika Chohan have creatively layered Chhapaak to tell representational stories of thousands of oppressed and victimized women in India. The messaging is strong, without letting the visual storytelling flounder. The film neither takes a one-way, documentary narrative, unlike “Crime Patrol” episodes, nor too many creative liberties to project Malti as a larger-than-life character, unlike in most fabricated Bollywood biographies. The storytelling is grounded, organic and helps the audience relate to the scenes and situations picturized.
Deepika starring as the only ‘star factor’ from Bollywood proves she exists in the industry as much for her acting skills as for her looks. If convincingly portraying a youthful teenager was not challenging enough, Deepika—who has been voted as among the most beautiful women in the world several times—takes on the more difficult challenge of personifying an acid attack survivor who has completely lost her facial features. Yet she skillfully blends into every scene. With a host of talented supporting actors in the film, Deepika is not an outcast but an integral part of the realistic cinema. She characterizes the naivety of a teenager, the ferocity of a fighter, and the splendor of a winner as Malti in this poignant coming-of-age story.
While Deepika takes center-stage as Malti, Vikrant Massey as “Amol,” a journalist turned activist for acid attack survivors, is a strong male character who is not glorified to befit a masculine narrative. Madhurjeet Sarghi playing “Archana Bajaj” has a much stronger presence in the film as Malti’s unrelenting lawyer but her character does not get a backstory or sub-plot of her own, which is one weakness of the film’s storytelling. A bold, assiduous and unyielding lawyer on whose arguments the whole case rests definitely deserved more script.
Using Malti as the central character, Chhapaak sheds lights on many underlying social issues. It challenges the patriarchal Indian society where women are punished for having a voice, where the character of a victim is assassinated even as she fights for justice, and where a bottle of acid, which costs almost as much as a bottle of water, can change a woman’s life forever. But the film doesn’t make you miserable while watching it. It’s not a sob story. It only makes you more compassionate, more understanding, and more awake.
Who should watch it?
For this movie, we humbly request our readers to ignore all online audience reviews. It faces a boycott campaign in India because Deepika dared show solidarity with JNU students protesting against an attack on them by ‘unidentified’ goons. As of Jan 14, the movie’s IMDb rating fell to 4.4 following 4,000 1-star reviews. (Deepika’s punishment for having a voice).
For the unbiased audience, Chhapaak is a beautiful visual-story that highlights the vulnerability of the human body and the resiliency of the human soul. If not for Deepika, watch it for the thousands of women in India, and maybe hundreds more in Nepal, who have survived the barbarian assault and have lived to become braver, stronger and more beautiful.