Cast: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey
Director: Meghna Gulzar
Chhapaak’s first scene is that of a swelling crowd of students protesting against a brutal incident of rape (obviously referencing the protests that broke out in support of Nirbhaya) as the police try to contain them. That scene although a brief one cleverly establishes the preamble for what’s to follow--a background to the legal and systemic problems that come in the way of women’s safety in India.
Director Meghna Gulzar displays a mastery over her craft by approaching the subject with the maturity and sensitivity that it deserves. Based on the life of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal, the narrative is shorn of false bravado, the scenes never swelling to larger than life proportions, a common trope in popular cinema. Laxmi Agarwal had acid thrown on her face in 2005 by her acquaintances Guddu and Rakhi for Laxmi’s refusal to marry Guddu.
The protagonist in the film, however, is rechristened Malti and other character names have been changed as well but the story remains a faithful rendition of the real-life incidents. One is shocked into attentiveness on seeing Malti screaming in agony, as she falls to the ground after the attack. And then scene after scene, we see her face melt away only to be replaced by a vision of flesh singed and mauled beyond repair and recognition. That particular moment when Malti sees her dismembered face for the first time in the mirror and shrieks in horror is telling. It is only after 7 surgeries involving skin grafts that her life is restored to a semblance of normalcy. Frankly, Malti’s ‘new normal’ is harsh. However, what makes Malti’s (Laxmi’s) story truly heroic is not the fact that she bounces back from the tragedy but that she lends her voice to protect others from this heinous crime.
Gulzar’s Malti is not a mere survivor; she’s a crusader.
Atika Chohan and Meghna Gulzar’s screenplay and dialogues written with great care seldom allow the film to degenerate into a melodrama. The spotlight remains firmly on Malti’s trial and tribulations following the acid attack. For instance, the fact that a long drawn trial sucks up most of her family’s resources or that she struggles to find a job remains central to the story instead of a burgeoning romance.
Deepika Padukone blends into Malti seamlessly, the star, rarely surfacing and Gulzar constructs the balance with a seasoned hand. After Padmaavat, she delivers yet another striking performance in a very difficult role. There is Vikrant Massey as Amol, brilliant, even in a small, supporting part and Madhurjeet Sarghi as the lawyer who walks every step of the way with Malti in her fight for justice. While none of them get to deliver the tried and tested monologue, there are delicate flourishes that make them effective.
The weak link if any, is an attempt to marry a breezy narrative style with the starkness of a procedural. On occasions, it proves to be distracting. Keeping the minor foibles aside, Chhapaak deserves to be lauded for what it is—a positive life-affirming story that engages and sensitizes in equal measure. That actress Kangana Ranaut, whose sister Rangoli Chandel suffered a similar attack has gone on record to praise the director and the actor for making Chhapaak, besides Chandel sharing a few details of the incident on social media, suggest that the film is certain to strike a chord. It is truly laudable for putting forward the victims’ perspective while sensitizing others about the magnitude of the crime and its destructive aftermath.
Loosely translated, Chhapaak means ‘splash’ and the film with its powerful message is likely to make a splash too. Take a bow, ladies.
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