An uplifting movie about the lifelong repercussions of an acid attack, one that celebrates the survivor’s will to survive and overcome without undermining the gravity of the crime?
It was always going to be a difficult task. The 2019 Malayalam movie Uyare, about a commercial pilot whose boyfriend disfigures her, succeeded only partially in maintaining the balance between reality and wish fulfilment. Meghna Gulzar’s Hindi-language Chhapaak runs into the same trouble sometimes as it presents a life-altering moment of horror as a tale of hard-earned progress. Chhapaak has some clunky execution and earnest speechifying, but its intention – to bring the crime of acid attacks to mainstream attention – is brave and commendable. This makes the movie hard to watch but also hard to turn away from.
The sober and often harrowing drama, written by Gulzar and Atika Chohan, has been inspired by Laxmi Agarwal, whose face was disfigured in an acid attack when she was 15. Agarwal underwent several reconstructive surgeries, became an activist and has petitioned the courts to regulate the sale of acid. Despite Agarwal’s efforts, this particularly horrific form of violence continues unabated, as the end credits inform us.
In the fictional version, Malti (Deepika Padukone) is 19, belongs to a working-class family, has a clandestine romance going on, and dreams of appearing on the Indian Idol talent hunt show. Everything changes the minute Bashir (Vishal Dahiya), a family friend who is smarting from Malti’s refusal to marry him, decides to punish her. Clover Wooton’s make-up and prosthetics are all too effective in revealing the extent to which Malti’s face is ravaged and permanently altered.
Malti’s horrendously hard recovery is only one part of the story. In addition to depicting her plight – the painful treatment, the depression, the social rejection – Chhapaak also explores the easy availability of acid and the lack of rigour in prosecuting attackers. The non-linear narrative jumbles up the timeline, moving between Malti’s present and the circumstances that led to her condition. Alongside battling domestic fires and desperately seeking work, Malti does the rounds of courts, all along trying to get used to the face in the mirror.
Malti’s relationship with Amol (Vikrant Massey), the crotchety head of the non-profit organisation where she finally gets a job, appears to be an attempt to lighten the heavy material. The tentative romance allows for smiles and songs, and Amol is a wonderful character, but their interaction is not always elegant or the mood reliever it is intended to be. While Padukone turns out a sincere performance, conveying Malti’s struggle to the best of her abilities, Massey is a delight as the activist who is sometimes too dedicated to see the rainbow lining the clouds.
Chhapaak is needlessly uneven and sluggish at times, but it’s most powerful when it keeps things simple and stays on course. The moments that linger in the 123-minute movie are the ones about the horror of the situation. Why would anybody do something like this? This question is asked frequently through Chhapaak, and whatever else Gulzar does with the subject (or doesn’t), she refuses to offer a facile answer.