For her latest movie Chhapaak, Deepika Padukone’s incandescent beauty is concealed under layers of silicon and glue. Directed by Meghna Gulzar, Chhapaak stars Padukone as Malti, a fictionalised version of the acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal. Malti’s agony plays out on her face: first, it is covered by red blotches and then the upper layer of her skin peels away, taking many of her features along with it. What is left is a ghost of a face, one that requires a series of painful surgeries to be rearranged into a semblance of what it once was.
The movie’s credibility can be attributed in great part to Clover Wootton’s excellent make-up and prosthetics. The 33-year-old technician has been working in Hindi films since 2012. Wootton’s credits include Revolver Rani, Haider, Rangoon, Sui Dhaaga, Zero and Pari. Before Chhapaak, she describes her most challenging project as Sanju (2018), Rajkumari Hirani’s biopic of actor Sanjay Dutt’s struggle with drug addiction and personal crises.
For Wootton, who was born and raised in the United Kingdom, Chhapaak represented a unique challenge – the full horror of Malti’s plight had to be shown while also compelling viewers to keep watching in order to understand the horror of the violence done to her.
Wootton finds herself in the Hindi film industry at a time when far more attention is being paid to make-up, hair and prosthetics. The increasing number of biopics and period films has resulted in a greater involvement of these inter-linked departments. Audiences who are exposed to the offerings on streaming platforms and technically proficient Hollywood productions are also watching the details in Indian films more closely than before, Wootton observed. This means that there can be no short-cuts to verisimilitude. Excerpts from an interview with Scroll.in.
What was the biggest challenge in the making of ‘Chhapaak’?
This is the first time I have done a project like this. I had no real references.
We were trying to get the balance between showing the visceral horror of what these attacks mean without sensationalising it or turning the viewer away – just allowing the prosthetics to be instrumental to the storytelling without being anything more just for the sake of it. We wanted the movie to ring true for the survivors. We were mindful that the movie is showing on these enormous screens, so we had to be careful that the make-up didn’t become distracting.
We had to work on Deepika’s face without adding too much weight or making it look too bulky while also giving a natural feel. We were shooting in Delhi in the heat for about 10-12 hours a day, in buses and on the streets. At the end of the day, it wasn’t a great time for close-ups.
With prosthetics, you are adding something to somebody’s face. What has happened to Laxmi and other acid attack survivors is that they have lost mass on their faces.
What did your preparations for the movie involve?
We met Laxmi, her family members and her doctor. We spoke to other acid attack survivors as well.
What happens in an acid attack is that the top layer of the skin turns black and starts to peel off. Everybody has had different experiences – some feel the pain immediately, and the others the next day. We followed Laxmi’s path of recovery.
One of the discussions Meghna and I had was about how we wanted the changes that appear on the skin to be treated. The skin goes from dark to light after transplantation – it darkens considerably and then lightens over time. There can be white blotches, and the skin gets constricted in places. The distortion happens because the scar tissue contracts. This is what causes the most damage. We have shown all these stages and hope they register as a part of Malti’s timeline.
The shoot must have been a very emotional one.
It was very emotional for me to hear the stories of the survivors – it was difficult, to say the least. I don’t have any understanding of what it takes to do that to another human being and the resilience it takes to come back from that. The strength of the survivors is extraordinary.
The most difficult scene for me was the one where Malti pulls back the covers on the mirror, sees her face, and screams. Every time I watch the scene, it gives me goose bumps. It was an emotional day for Deepika and a really emotional shoot. When you are working on such a sensitive subject, you become close to your actors, and when they get upset, you do too.
People have also observed that Deepika looks really pretty with the prosthetic. I like that – Laxmi has such femininity and this beautiful confidence about her, which is what Deepika captures wonderfully.
Prosthetic design is said to be a very hands-on skill – what does it involve?
Prosthetics involves a very different skill-set from make-up. It’s about knowing how chemicals react to one other, about using silicon, resin, polyurethane and metals. You have to sculpt and really work with your hands.
What you do is take a cast of an actor’s face and then make a mould on to which you sculpt the prosthetic. You then encapsulate and pour silicon into the mould to create the prosthetic.
Every face can only be used once, so you need to make a fresh piece each time. For Chappaak, we were doing two moulds a day, and I must have made at least 40 over the course of the shoot.
It takes two hours to put on, and the removal takes at least half an hour. The removal process is no fun either. In the case of Deepika, she has this most beautiful skin, which is also an important part of her work. So we had to be very careful. When your face is covered with glue, your skin can’t breathe. You are sitting there for close to ten hours and sweating. She was unbelievably patient.
I also created moulds for some of the other characters – there are actors mixed along with real-life survivors.
Before Chappaak, my most challenging film was Sanju. Ranbir Kapoor needed different looks. For instance, when he was younger and in his drug phase, he needed to look disheveled and beaten up. So I did special effects make-up, which included blood and bruising.
How did you find yourself in Bollywood?
I studied Fine Art at the University of Leeds. I have studied make-up in London, Paris and Mumbai, and I also learnt prosthetics at Leeds.
My teacher at Leeds had been offered the movie Krrish 3, so I came to Mumbai to assist him on the project. That was in 2012, and I ended up staying. I realised that there was a huge market in Bombay. Also, Bombay suits me as a city.
I have done a lot of films, I have loved them and they have taken me travelling around the country, but they can be exhausting. I have got to a point where I want fewer films. I am lucky that I can pick and a choose a bit, do one or two small films a year. It makes a big difference to me if the project is challenging and needs my creative input and the schedule is short.
How has being a foreigner in the Hindi film industry worked for you?
It was a bit challenging. I had doors opened to me, but people also assume that if you are a foreigner, you know more than you do, so you have to prove yourself, which I hope I have. There were also times when people thought they could pull the wool over my eyes because I am not from here. I can understand basic Hindi, and there were times when people would be talking about me in Hindi in front of me. These kind of things are deeply disrespectful.
I also tend to turn down films where I know the actors or filmmakers to be deeply disrespectful towards women. I am in a position where I have no qualms doing that.
‘Chhapaak’ movie review: Hard to watch and hard to look away
‘Chhappak’ director Meghna Gulzar: ‘The acid attack survivor is not a victim, she is a fighter’