- Directed by Meghna Gulzar
- Written by Meghna Gulzar, Atika Chohan
- Starring Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey, Vishal Dahiya, Madhurjeet Sarghi, Payal Nair
- Classification PG; 2 hours 18 mins
There’s a sense of innocence, joy even, in the Hindi word chhapaak. It’s onomatopoeic, describing the sound of a splash when you douse someone in a bucket of water, say, or jump into a pond. Trust famed poet-lyricist (and erstwhile filmmaker) Gulzar, who has written the songs for the Hindi movie Chhapaak, to use it to bring alive the violence of an acid attack. The refrain of the measured title song repeats “Chhapaak se pehchaan le gaya” – [Someone] took away my identity with a splash.
However, by making acid-attack survivor Malti Lal its central character, and by training the camera’s unflinching gaze on her – and several other acid-attack survivors – Chhapaak does the exact opposite thing. It tells us the human story behind flashy news headlines that tend to focus on the act itself. Graceful direction and a mature performance by a Bollywood A-lister, surrounded by a strong supporting cast, come together to make an uplifting movie.
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Directed by Meghna Gulzar, the poet-lyricist’s daughter, Chhapaak stars Bollywood star Deepika Padukone in the lead role of Malti, a 19-year-old woman with ambitions to step out of her lower-middle-class family’s circumstances. She’s on the receiving end of several advances by young men in the neighbourhood, including a family friend, Babbu, short for Bashir Khan, a 30-year-old tailor. Jealous of a budding romance between Malti and a schoolmate, Rajesh, Babbu organizes an acid attack.
The movie tells the story of Malti’s fight for justice as she launches a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) case to ban the sale of corrosive fluids, such as hydrochloric and sulphuric acid, which are easily available in Indian general stores for 30 rupees (little more than 50 cents).
Chhapaak is based on the true story of Laxmi Agarwal, who was 15 when she was attacked by Naeem Khan, a 32-year-old family friend, in 2005. Agarwal had spurned Khan’s advances, which angered him enough to plan the attack with two friends. Agarwal fought for a new law that sought harsher punishment for the perpetrators of acid attacks, as well as the ban of over-the-counter sales of acid.
Bollywood biopics and PSA (public service announcement) films often follow a formula. The story is given a colourful makeover, and the lead character usually lectures the audience in the climax scene. Thankfully, Chhapaak stays firmly away from that recipe.
Meghna Gulzar is no stranger to adapting real-life drama to film. She previously directed Talvar, which was inspired by the 2008 double-murder case of teenager Aarushi Talwar and the family domestic help Hemraj Banjade, and played at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. The script for Chhapaak, co-written by Gulzar and Atika Chohan, and based on extensive research and interviews with Agarwal and other acid-attack survivors, stays away from the sensation of the news headlines. It dwells instead on Malti’s struggle to first survive, and then thrive.
The film opens with scenes from the 2012 protests in India that followed the notorious Delhi gang-rape case. And those images incidentally mirror the waves of student demonstrations currently under way in India against a new citizenship law, which has been criticized for being discriminatory against Muslims and other minorities. Amol Dwivedi (Vikrant Massey), founder of a group for acid-attack survivors, is also present at the protest.
He pointedly retorts to a TV journalist, “Who cares about acid attacks in the face of rape attacks.” After all, on the scale of violence against women, acid attacks don’t figure as highly as attacks on women’s – and by extension the family’s – honour. His challenge to the TV reporter brings us to Malti’s story. In showing the attack itself, Gulzar uses Bollywood’s slo-mo romantic song montage trope to powerful effect. You cannot turn your eyes away from Malti’s pain and disfigurement.
At first dispirited, Malti is helped by a tenacious lawyer, Archana Bajaj (Madhurjeet Sarghi), and her father’s employer, Shiraz aunty (Payal Nair), to fight for herself. In doing so, she also joins Amol’s group, Chaaya, to advocate for other acid-attack victims.
Malti’s practical and playful approach to life in the face of Amol’s self-righteousness is one of the film’s many strengths. Seeing Malti being supported by a strong group of women, even as all of them are torn between expectations at home and work, is another. By keeping the script taut at just more than two hours, Chhapaak doesn’t feel preachy. The way it uses Padukone’s face, renowned in India and on red carpets across the world for its luminous quality, is another clever narrative stroke.
Why do acid attacks happen? There’s no clear answer to this question that victims constantly raise in the movie. Patriarchy, toxic masculinity, caste discrimination, general apathy – the reasons could range from systemic to mundane. As Malti’s lawyer points out in a court statement, its victims are always young women with larger-than-life aspirations. It remains possible today because acid is still commonly available for sale.
Before the end credits roll, a few statistics appear on screen to note that acid attacks in India occur in the hundreds every year, and are on the rise. The most recent acid attack happened in December, 2019.
Toward the end of an otherwise hopeful and affirming movie, it’s a sobering statement.