When I entered the dimly lit cinema hall, I was anticipating a lot. All I could think of, was the trailer I had watched a month ago. Could the film overcome the political tension it had surrounded itself with? Would it defend itself? Safe to say, I wasn’t disappointed.
Meghna Gulzar is known to deliver thought provoking, content driven, out-of-the box movies. Her movies don’t fall under the usual gamut of commercial, masala movies. If you know it’s directed by her, you know it’s going to be different. Chhapaak was no exception. Written and directed by Meghna, Chhapaak is a fact-based drama, uplifting and a beautifully crafted film. It’s loosely based on Laxmi Agarwal, an acid attack survivor.
If you walk into the theatre expecting some overly emotional, sympathy gainer movie, with dance numbers or romance angles, you’ll be disappointed. This movie is meant to be hard hitting. You won’t leave the theatre feeling entertained. That’s the beauty of the movie. Nowhere has sympathy been extracted by the audience for the survivors. It just expects you to look through their lenses, experience their pain and yet, join in on their celebrations in life. I think one of the movie’s motives was to sensitise people towards the attack survivors. As much as the camera focused on Deepika’s character Malti, it also focused equally on other acid attack survivors. No one’s face was blurred, and nor was anyone cut out of the frame. They all looked beautiful. I could hear a lot of people in the hall go “oh my god”, “oh no”, “poor girl” etc in the beginning. But as the movie progressed, I could sense this change. No more pitiful ooh and ahhs, just admiration in people’s eyes. This was new to me, because I have never seen a movie impact so many people so quickly.
Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s music was a soothing balm in the film. With only a handful of tracks in the background, it helped the movie focus on the story more. The title track, sung by Arijit Singh, is introduced in the beginning itself. Throughout the movie, you can hear it play in the background, and you can’t help but focus on its brilliant lyrics. “Koi chehra mita ke, aur aankh se hata ke; Chand chheente uda ke jo gaya; Chhapaak se pehchaan le gaya.” These lines encapsulate the ordeal of an acid attack survivor perfectly.
Deepika Padukone did a marvellous job as Malti. Her acting was fantastically real. Even though her prosthetics make her resemble a real survivor, she relies less on make-up, and more on honest dialogue deliveries – which makes her character look even more authentic. Her character’s story is shown in three flashbacks. You can see her evolve as the movie progresses, and along with that evolves your perception on the acid attack survivors. Vikrant Massey, too, has done an equally incredible job as Amol. In the opening scene itself, we can see him question the press and the system. When he asks a journalist, “Where is Malti ?” we know he’s also questioning the numerous survivors whose cases we don’t even know of. Amol isn’t your typical knight in shining armour. He doesn’t showcase the constant need to be right and to be a saviour. Yet, he helps Malti and other survivors fight for their cause.
Another major character is the advocate, Bajaj (played by Madhurjeet Sarghi), who rallies for Malti tirelessly and even compromises her personal life. She raises two important points in the film. First, how easy it is to escape the sentence/fine. She notices a major flaw in the system – that “the attackers are able to avoid appropriately long prison sentences because, according to the criminal code, throwing acid at someone is no more heinous than dousing them with hot tea.” Second, how the attackers mostly attack those women who “either want to study more, or want to grow in their career”. Other noticeable characters were the lady who literally helped Malti get a new face – Shiraz aunty (played by Payal Nair). It’s rare to find people helping their domestic servants’ families to such an extent. Malti’s family too played an important part in the film. Their acting was very surreal, and could move you to tears.
Gulzar has very carefully highlighted such issues, without blaming or pointing fingers at anyone but the system. The whole point of how cheap acid is and how easy it is to procure them, is the underlying cause in the movie. You too feel that anger, that desperation, that longing for justice, while watching the film. You too smile and shed a few happy tears, when the court passes a law regarding sale of acids. Because you too have waited for the justice to come towards the end of the movie. There was no closure at the end. The fight is still on. But again, that’s the beauty of Gulzar’s films. There is no happy ending. There is no closure. Which is why you feel better when you see the survivors smiling and laughing. You tend to join in as they celebrate life. Inspiration oozes out of this movie.
Gulzar has also cast real survivors of acid assaults, the women who run Sheroes café in Lucknow. Thankfully, the camera focuses just as much on their faces as it does upon Malti’s. Gulzar emphasizes the dignity of these attack survivors and the joy that exists even after their devastating and life changing injury. Many of the most moving scenes feature Malti and real survivors playing and fantasizing about future treatments, their faces lit up not in pain but in laughter. At some point in the movie, Malti even says how she is finally happy and doesn’t want to be entangled in court sessions for life. Although the movie leaves you with the grim reality of acid sale in India, you agree with Malti.
There are scenes of anguish and despair, where you feel your guts being wrenched and thrown out. You tear up when you hear the victims’ screams, wanting to lend a hand to help. But the film doesn’t make a spectacle of pain. As Malti, Padukone is inquisitive, watchful and calm, but never overly emotional. Again, you don’t feel pity. You somehow are emphatic.
Yet as you leave the hall, you leave with a heavy heart. When we finally get to see the real Malti before the attack in the third flashback, we’re reminded of the sheer monstrosity of her attacker. That’s why you feel your heart warm up a little, and a smile creeps in when you see her triumph finally. But on the other hand, the climax is quite capable of slapping that very smile right off your face.
If you want to watch a movie which is not rainbows and unicorns, and grappling with real issues, watch Chhapaak. It’s a good way to become more desensitised towards acid attack survivors, and to treat them as normal human beings – with dignity and respect.
By Sonakshi Srivastava