Meghna Gulzaar’s Chhapaak, based on the real-life story of Laxmi Agarwal, an acid attack victim is showcased with utmost honesty. This honesty, however, comes with a cost. Gruesome visuals that will make you uncomfortable, score that will give you an eerie sense and a narrative that will make you sick in the stomach, but will make you vouch for the message at hand, without victim syndrome.
Before we see the first visual, we hear only one slogan, “We want Justice!”. The film opens with a protest for the Nirbhaya case in 2012. a protest, that in today’s day and age is a regular affair. Just like every protest, it has cops, and it ends with water guns and police lathi-charging the protestors. This is where we are first introduced to a grumpy activist Amol (Vikrant Massey), running an NGO for acid attack victims. The cynic, overbearing male in him says things like, “Rape ke aage acid attack kya cheez hai, lekin chacha samajhte nahi”, to a journalist friend who has seen him after a long long time.
Deepika Padukone plays Malti, a middle-class girl from Delhi, whose pleasantly ordinary life is wrecked by an acid attack. We see her for the first time, seven years after she has filed a PIL, and struggles to find a job. Very early on, director Meghna Gulzaar has made clear in the film the gaze with which one views Malti. The parlour lady denies her a job by giving her an excuse that one should look beautiful to work in a beauty parlour, while the corporate boss tries to ask her about her further studies, though only reason behind it being holding a conversation.
A gruesome story of violence caused by a male may often lose its plot or urgency at the cost of the survivor. However, with Chhapaak, they find the right note. The director uses two different approaches to show these few things, intertwining them with each other at intervals. The romantic angle engulfed with slice of life drama along with the police procedural. Co-writers Meghna Gulzaar and Atika Chohan’s screenplay remains tight, but also plays out really smartly in establishing and empowering this narrative.
After establishing the characters, this film goes into the back story of our protagonist Malti (based on Laxmi Agarwal). It takes us back to the crime scene, where we see the uncomfortably gruesome act committed, and also its aftermath. The director, aided with the help of a beautifully intricate but eerie score, leaves no stones unturned whilst portraying the visuals of first, the attack, and also the traumatic aftermath faced by Malti. This segment will send chills down your spine, while making you uncomfortable flinching your eyelids off the screen. Gulzaar also smartly initiates the legal aspect of an acid attack with a great analogy of how our legal systems have the same penalty for both, throwing hot tea, or acid, thus neglecting the intensity of the crime, or graveness of the situation.
Years after the attack, Malti is seen working at an NGO, run by Amol. However, money is hard to come by and along with the job, she is also fighting a case and has filed a PIL against sale of acid, while also tending to a worried mother and sick brother. Malti, becomes the face of these acid attack victims, because unlike others before, she doesn’t succumb to societal pressure or gives in to the fact that court chaos and media lookout is a luxury only for the rich. This is also because she has more surgeries than the others, thanks to her father’s employer, who pays for them. This results in her face being less scarred than others, which also has been established, though just as a mere pass by in one of the scenes.
Chhapaak has a few good things going for it, which overall aid to the bigger picture, making it such a painstakingly beautiful watch. It doesn’t focus on the “why?” aspect of the crime. The minute you think about that aspect, one automatically assumes something or the other for being the reason behind committing such a horrendous crime. This film is more about Malti, and her silent healing, while fighting to bring justice to not just herself, but other victims of this crime. With the help of her very solid lawyers, she turns the media spotlight into a window of opportunity on spreading awareness regarding the issue.
The writers have also brilliantly debunked the gender politics, so prominent in our society, in many ways. It calls out the male-saviour-complex in Massey’s occasionally overbearing character, which, on multiple occasions is made shut by the simplistic innocence of Malti. Even with Malti lawyer Archana (Madhurjeet Sarghi), it is shown how supporting her husband (Anand Tiwari) is with the family while she does her job. What makes it different is that it’s neither celebrated, nor looked down upon, it’s just stated as normal behaviour, as it should be.
The music by the legendary music directors Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, forming another ruthless partnership with lyricist Gulzaar, magnificently add onto this film with their melodies and heart touching poetry, putting another feather in Meghna Gulzaar’s crown. However, the film completely belongs to Deepika Padukone. An actress known for her elegance and period drama roles, proves her versatility with easily one of her best performances for years to come. She disappears into Malti. From horrors and screams on seeing a face she doesn’t identify with, to accepting it with warmth and channelling it into a fight for right, she transcends boundaries in never letting us realise she is anything more than Malti on screen.
With stellar performances, carefully crafted storylines, poignant lyrics and an unfiltered honesty, Meghna Gulzaar’s Chhapaak will take you on a journey which will seem uncomfortable and gruelling, but necessary for the future to look even remotely better.