Meghna Gulzar’s new movie after the 2018 blockbuster female espionage thriller Raazi charts the journey of another feisty woman. Chhapaak, starring and co-produced by Deepika Padukone, is based on Laxmi Agarwal, whose face was brutalised when she was 15 by her stalker. Agarwal went on to found the campaign Stop Sale Acid, and received the International Women of Courage award in 2014.

Chhapaak has been written by Gulzar and Atika Chohan and will be released on January 10. Padukone’s Malti survives the trauma of the attack, comes to terms with her new physical identity and goes on to help other victims. Malti is aided by social activist Amol, played by Vikrant Massey and based on Laxmi Agarwal’s former partner Alok Dixit.

Gulzar made her feature debut with the surrogacy-themed Filhaal… in 2002, and found her feet with social dramas drawn from real-life incidents. Talvar (2015) was based on the Arushi Talwar murder case. Raazi is adapted from Harinder Sikka’s novel Calling Sehmat, which is reportedly inspired by a Kashmiri woman who was sent to Pakistan as a spy in 1971. Excerpts from an interview with the 46-year-old filmmaker, whose next movie is a biopic of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.

When did the idea for ‘Chhapaak’ come to you?
I wrote the script of Chhapaak in 2016. This was after Talvar.

Against the backdrop of the 2012 gang rape in Delhi, acid violence had come into public consciousness again. I used to come across a lot of reporting on these crimes. What I realised is that while these incidents happened quite frequently, they weren’t discussed enough. Acid violence wasn’t part of the public discourse as it should have been.

I decided to dig deeper. One of the cases that you immediately come across is that of Laxmi Agarwal. This was a landmark case in acid violence for many reasons and on many levels. Slowly, I began to crystallise the broad thought of Chhapaak. I then collaborated with my co-writer Atika Chouhan. We looked at Laxmi Agarwal’s life and we got her support on the story that we wanted to tell. But Raazi happened in the meantime.

How have you treated the subject of acid violence?
There were two things on my mind both while writing and executing the film. The first was that the acid attack survivor is not a victim. She is resilient, and that needs to come out in the film. She’s a fighter just like most acid attack survivors whom I’ve met and interacted with in the last two years of working on this film.

Secondly, the nature of the subject is such that it lends itself to extremely graphic and disturbing visuals. But you still want the audience to keep their eyes open. Otherwise it beats the purpose of telling the story. So a certain aesthetic level needed to be achieved and this is a fine balance to strike – between sugarcoating it and making it completely repulsive.

Chhapaak (2020).

What is the significance of the title?
Chhapaak is a phonetic sound for a splash. It is not a literal translation. It was one of two titles I had in mind – the other one is Gandhak, which is the Hindi name for sulphuric acid.

There were many reasons I went with Chhapaak. I knew that I was going to have a theme song, and the word chhapaak lends itself better to music and lyrics than gandhak. There is a lyrical quality to chhapaak, it has got a rhythm to it. I found it ironical that such a lyrical word could represent such violence. Just like the liquid itself, which is considered soft and flowy but since it is acid, is capable of such trauma and violence. I felt Chhapaak would be most representative of what I’m trying to say through the film.

What made Deepika Padukone your first and only choice to play Malti?
The whole process of Deepika becoming a part of Chhapaak and agreeing to play Malti happened instinctively. It was a ten-minute conversation. I didn’t even give her a narration. I just gave her a broad idea of the subject, the story and the kind of film that I was looking at. Before I could complete my sentence, she was like, I’m in, let’s do this.

How have you channelled Padukone’s star power for the movie?
Everything that is her calling card, whether it is her persona, her beauty, her elegance or the fact that she has a certain poise that she brings to every film, she is shorn of all of that in playing Malti.

There were times when we did a prosthetic test and I was like no, this is looking too symmetrical, it needs to get distorted more. There was never a moment when she hesitated in how she was going to be presented. It was complete submission from her side.

You can see it in the trailer. Her hair is randomly chopped and the face is completely distorted. A survivor goes through those stages because of the way the skin behaves after it is burnt, and then you have surgery upon surgery and it is corrected in stages and parts. Deepika approached this aspect of the role without a moment’s fear or hesitation, particularly about what it would do to her public persona.

What we had decided early on was that even with the prosthetics, we didn’t want to make Deepika look like Laxmi. There were a few markers for identification – for example, the way Laxmi wears her hair or the way the skin is grafted in certain places. But beyond that, I wanted it to be Deepika’s face that’s been distorted after an acid attack.

Similarly, Malti is an amalgamation of Deepika and Laxmi. Deepika found that balance. This is something that comes from inside an actor. No director can extract that. Otherwise, it’ll become a mechanical performance.

Deepika Padukone in Chhapaak (2020). Courtesy KA Productions/Mriga Films/Fox Star Studios.

Tell us about the contributions of prosthetic artist Clover Wootton.
Clover Wootton has worked with me on Talvar as well. She’s fabulously talented, very detail-oriented and diligent. She would delve into the smallest detail with how the skin will behave, how it burns, how it flakes, how it ruptures. We had long conversations with Laxmi’s plastic surgeon too.

It is a prosthetic – you try it but it may not always work, and you may have to change it or tweak it. Wootton was relentless.

What made you cast Vikrant Massey in the role of Amol?
I’ve loved Vikrant’s work since I watched A Death in The Gunj. The desire to work with him has been there since.

Amol is a social activist, a North Indian man. While he is not a stud or a handsome prince in shining armour, he is supposed to be a character that melts your heart. Vikrant is all of that.

The Malayalam film ‘Uyare’ also addresses the subject of acid attacks.
I haven’t seen Uyare. I actually miss out on a lot of films when I’m working on a film. There’s so much visual stimulation through the day that you don’t look for any additional visual works as an active measure. Also, in my research, I tend to not look at similar films because that can influence your craft. I consciously avoid that.

Nok Jhok, Chhapaak (2020).

You have settled into a groove of making films inspired by real-life incidents. Is this where you hope to stay?
Right from the beginning of my career, my endeavour has been to tell stories that emanate from our surroundings because it is important to give something to audiences that can resonate with them rather than something that is disconnected or aspirational.

My last three films being true to life is more of a coincidence than strategy on my part. My choices are extremely instinctive. I react instinctively to the one line of a story and that will tell me if I want to make the film or not. The genre, the casting, the commercial viability, the complexity, simplicity – all of that I start thinking about later.

How do you cope with working on intense subjects one after the other? Is there a process you follow in order to exit a project and enter a fresh one?
It actually depends on how traumatic the story is. When I am filming, I have this switch that goes on and I don’t react emotionally to the content at all. I’m completely clinical and objective, just focusing on the technicality of the execution – whether the take is right, the angle is right, focusing on the edit, the background, the music. When the film is released, that’s when I start processing the content.

For instance, with Talvar, I allowed myself to process the realisation that these are real people and that this really happened only once the film was released. And then I had sleepless nights for a few months.

Raazi was not as traumatic perhaps. It was more in the distant past. It’s the same with Chhaapak – I will process it when it releases. And then I will take up a detox downtime, probably go into writing because I find that very therapeutic.

Raazi (2018).

Did you anticipate the success of ‘Raazi’?
No, there’s no way to predict something like this. It’s not in my personality.

The writer of ‘Calling Sehmat’, Harinder Sikka, said that ‘Raazi’ missed out on getting a National Film Award because it omitted a scene from the book in which Sehmat salutes the tricolour.
One is trivialising the National Awards by saying that just having the tricolour in a film would have won us that award.

What can you tell us about your upcoming film on Sam Manekshaw?
The draft of our script is ready. It needs intense preparation because it is a complicated film. The canvas is complex and wide. We will go into production in 2021.

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