Chhapaak, directed by Meghna Gulzar, gets its title from the sound of a splash. Sadly this is no splash from children jumping into puddles of rain, or the splash of coloured water when squirted on friends during Holi. You already know that the splash in question is the sound and the force of acid flung to the face.
Co-written by Meghna and Atika Chohan, the film is based on the true story of Laxmi Agarwal, who in 2005 at the age of 15 became the victim of an acid attack…one of over 200 women in India each year who are at the receiving end of this heinous crime, a closing slate tells us. But it takes the deeply evocative lyrics of the film’s title song, written by Meghna’s father Gulzar, to grasp the complete magnitude and implication of the crime: “Koi chehra mita ke aur aankh se hata ke chandd chheente uda ke jo gaya, chhapaak se pehchaan le gaya.” Indeed it’s not just about disfiguring someone or erasing their face; it’s about destroying their very soul.
Laxmi, however, refused to let the incident crush her. She underwent multiple reconstructive surgeries, she fought the case against her attacker over years, filed a PIL against the sale of acid, and worked with an NGO dedicated to helping acid attack survivors. Chhapaak not only celebrates Laxmi’s will to survive and overcome the tragedy, it also asks important questions. Why doesn’t our legal system treat acid attacks as gravely as rape? Is 10 years of imprisonment an adequate punishment for scarring someone’s face and life permanently? Why is acid so easily available across the counter?
The film sticks closely to Laxmi’s story but changes the names of characters and minor details, presumably for legal reasons. Deepika Padukone plays the protagonist Malti, a 19-year-old from a working class family in Delhi, whose perfectly ordinary life comes undone when a family friend whose romantic overtures she ignored decides to teach her a lesson.
Deepika brings a quiet dignity to the role. She doesn’t merely apply the prosthetic to her face, she slips under it to become the character. This is not one of those actor-sheds-her-beauty-for-street-cred projects; this is a fully realised performance. Watch as she lets out that visceral scream after looking at her face in the mirror for the first time since the attack. Her performance reveals both vulnerability and determination as Malti goes through painful medical treatment, or struggles to find a job, or deals with social rejection.
Admirably Meghna treats these scenes with great sensitivity, but without ever soft-peddling the gravity of Malti’s experience. Melodrama is minimal here. A longer-than-usual stare, a mother diverting her child’s face on a bus, a casual comment about the need for beauty in a beauty parlour when she shows up seeking a job. The point is made.
The thoughtful, unflashy writing extends also to the character of Amol (Vikrant Massey), who is the head of the NGO where Malti finally gets a job. Their relationship is handled nicely, and Vikrant, who is a wonderful actor, conveys the frustrations and the despair of a committed activist with piercing honesty. He has no time to celebrate small victories; he has his eye on the big picture. In one lovely scene after an irritable outburst on his part Malti reminds him that acid was thrown on her, not him.
The film benefits from casting relatively unknown actors in key supporting roles. It helps ground the film in realism. It’s fitting also that Malti’s attacker doesn’t dominate the story, because it’s really not important who he is. What is important is why he did it. Meghna also doesn’t make a big deal about his religion. That’s not important either.
The weak spot here is the sluggish screenplay. There isn’t a lot going on when Malti isn’t on screen, and the back and forth nature of its narrative only gives it an episodic feel. Good thing then that the film is only two hours in duration, so that feeling that it’s running out of steam doesn’t last too long.
The filmmakers deserve credit for never seeking our pity. They have too much respect for the women who’ve survived these horrible attacks that they don’t manipulate us into shedding tears. If you’re choked it’s because the reality of what it depicts is frequently overwhelming.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Chhapaak. Its strength is in its quietude. It goes about its business with minimal fuss. The film is both moving and important. And its leading lady is in very fine form.
Rating: 3.5 / 5