Chhapaak, Review: Aesthetic and prosthetic
Laxmi Agarwal had acid thrown on her face and body in 2005. She survived, and lived to identify the attackers. What’s more, she succeeded in getting amendments made in the Indian Penal Code that recognise acid attacks as a separate category, and increasing the maximum penalty for the crime from seven years to ten years. India’s Supreme Court also ruled that the sale of acid should be regulated. So why has Meghna Gulzar made a film on her life 14 years later? Because the problem persists, and has shown an alarmingly increasing trend, between 2014 and 2017. Chhapaak (Splash) is a commendable effort, even if the events depicted are in the public domain, and earns a visit to the cinema.
Beginning in the past, Chhapaak starts with Malti reeling and wailing, and a sympathetic bystander calling an ambulance, which takes her to a hospital. We are not shown what has happened to her, but we know from reading a bit about the movie that she has been the victim of an acid attack, by a man who was peeved when his advances were spurned and marriage proposal turned down. While she is taken to hospital and treatment for her wounds begins, we learn that she is the daughter of a servant to Mrs. Shiraz Jamsetjee, a man of modest means, who has two school-going children, Malti and her younger brother. His wife is not employed, while he is addicted to alcohol. Thanks to “Shiraz Aunty”, Laxmi gets the best of medical attention, at an expensive hospital.
In Delhi, 2012, a journalist-turned-crusader, Amol, who runs a Non-Government Organisation, Chhaya, bumps into a TV news-anchor at a massive public meeting called to demand the hanging of those who raped and brutally murdered a girl, who is only referred to as Nirbhaya (fearless). Her identity is kept secret. Alok feels disappointed that a rape victim draws thousands of protestors in a public show of sympathy, whereas little is done for victims of acid attacks. He asks the TV journalist for the whereabouts of Malti, who seems to have disappeared. The anchor traces Malti and gives her Alok’s mobile number. She calls him, and, a minor misunderstanding later, she meets him. He offers her a job at Chhaya, which she accepts. Chhaya collects funds and arranges for the medical treatment of victims, including costly operations. In the past, Malti fights a court-room battle, first to stop the offender from getting bail, then to get him convicted, then to enhance his sentence and then on to try and get all sale of acid banned.
Chhapaak is written by Atika Chohan and director Meghna Gulzar. Atika Chohan wrote the TV series Rishta.com and the feature film Margarita With a Straw. After a long struggle, she got to co-write Chhapaak. Research was done by Meghna, whom Atika credits with the project. Meghna’s Talvar, released in 2015, was a film about a double murder, that of a 14 year-old girl and her servant, and was written by the producer, Vishal Bharadwaj. Raazi, 2018, the director’s last release, was about an Indian woman who gets married into a Pakistani army-man’s family and spies for India, and was co-written by Meghna. Hu Tu Tu (1999) was directed by Meghna’s father, Gulzar, and co-written by Gulzar and Meghna. She did not write anything for 19 years, yet her pen has gathered no dust, as witnessed in Chhapaak. Of course Chhapaak is based on a true story, and that helps a lot. That the true story makes for some hard-hitting emotional drama is a big advantage. Moreover, we will never know how much of the story was fictionalised, a process that begins with changing the names of the characters and locations.
As director, though the protagonist is Malti, Meghna gives Amol ample scope to develop a persona and stand on his own. A police inspector, a doctor and a rickshaw-puller get identities, for a change, so much so that you begin to expect their parts to be more substantial. Humour, of the linguistic variety, English v/s Hindi, is injected in a small dose, with a scene involving a rickshaw ride. A subject like acid attacks would not brook a large serving of laughter. By the way, not once does any character refer to acid as tezaab, the Hindi/Urdu word for acid. Why not? Though his sister was the one who threw the acid, we are led into believing that it was Basheer ‘Babbu’ Shaikh, and, strangely enough, he gets ten years in jail while his sister is sentenced to seven. We are shown the doctor making a circle on Malti’s bare back, to denote the area from which skin will be grafted on to her face, without telling us how it will affect her back and what will be done to patch the skin there.
Many events are predictable, like the sentencing in court, Malti’s first look at her face, months after the incident, in the mirror, her developing a crush on Amol (“silent love”), his initial reluctance to respond and his subsequent reciprocation. Police action, in tracing the bottle of acid and nabbing the suspect, is of the routine variety, almost like a piece of montage. About half the film is a court-room drama, and the audience is privy to facts and evidence only as they are revealed to the judges. Bringing in two more major acid attacks as part of the story, both of who meet painful ends, gives the film a sense of perspective. A subtle touch of deft direction is seen when the lawyer’s daughter emerges from her room dressed in a mini-skirt, while she is talking on the phone, and her husband gestures to her to go back in and change.
Starting the film with a loud, echoing wail, even as we notice that Malti’s face has not been disfigured, was a good ploy. Acid takes time to destroy flesh, and the scene is repeated towards the end, in its entirety. Laxmi’s real-life catch-phrase, “Usney acid merey chehrey par dala hae, sapnon par naheen” (he has thrown acid on my face, not on my dreams), is retained, and why not. It is simplistic and so true, for Laxmi was as Malti is, a survivor. Incidentally, Chhapaak is the first film of director Meghna Gulzar that is certified for Universal exhibition. All her previous films got UA certificates. It might be relevant to point out that the film contains some scenes that have grotesque images, but since the main incident affected a 14-15 year-old, and we also see her school friends as part of the narrative, the U certificate can be justified.
Laxmi, once known as the acid attack survivor, is now known as just Laxmi, who is a mother, a symbol of courage, hope and love for life. She was 15 when she was attacked by her stalker, with acid. Today, she is a synonym of courage and beauty. Laxmi received a 2014 International Women of Courage award by US First Lady, Michelle Obama. She was also chosen as the NDTV Indian of the Year, and won many other prestigious awards. Laxmi never stopped dreaming. She never gave up. Neither does Malti.
Deepika Padukone breathes life into Malti, turning her prosthetic into an aesthetic. Her reflexive chuckle, that occasionally breaks into full-blown laughter, is a tour de force, wherever it came from. When she ticks Alok off, who does not like her partying at a minor victory, she does it with élan, “You behave as if acid was thrown at you. It was not. It was thrown at me. And I want to party”. In one or two places, we can see the massive prosthetic covering her face, but we can suspend our disbelief on such occasions. She cannot pass off as a 15 year-old girl in school uniform, though she does not look the 33 years she was when the film was shot. It’s a daring role, and needed guts to perform. Vikrant Massey (Lootera—with Deepika’s now husband, Ranveer Singh), A Death in the Gunj, Lipstick Under My Burkha) is a good match, at 32, except for a couple of scenes, where he is supposed to be upset and angry, but comes across as feigning the emotions. The beard suits his part.
Madhurjeet Sarghi makes most of her opportunity as Archana, Malti’s lawyer. Vikas Dahiya is up to the mark as Basheer Shaikh, as is Ankur Bisht as Rajesh, Malti’s boy-friend. Your heart goes out to Pinky Rathore, played by Palak Jaiswal, the acid attack victim who struggles to come out of the incident alive, only to succumb, moments later. Delzad Hiwale, cast as the Parsee Mrs. Shiraz Jamsetjee, speaks inappropriately chaste Hindi (Parsees are not known to speak good Hindi), her acting abilities being beyond reproach.
Cinematography by Malay Prakash and editing by Nitin Baid and Vini N. Raj are of a professional level. At two hours and three minutes, the length is serviceable, though the film sags a bit in the second half. Music by Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy and lyrics by Gulzar are in consonance with the film. The title song, which uses the chehra-mohra colloquialism in rhyming form, and recurs in the film, has a tune that reminds us of the ‘Koyee shehree babu’ track from the film Loafer (1973).
Chhapaak is another move along the path of socially committed, realistic, cinema, that Meghna Gulzar has been charting, beginning with surrogate pregnancies, in her debut-making foray, Filhaal (For the Time Being), 2002. It might win Deepika an award for best actress but the writing and direction are not in the same league.