“Chhapaak”… Deepika Padukone stars in an issue-heavy movie that Meghna Gulzar treats with impressive lightness

Posted on January 13, 2020

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This isn’t the angry film I thought it would be. It is, surprisingly, filled with laughter and hope, and a solid companion piece to ‘Uyare’.

Spoilers ahead…

What is it about acid attacks that makes them possibly the worst possible crime on a woman? Listen to this phrase from the gorgeous and heartfelt Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy number that plays over the titles of Chhapaak: “chhapaak se pehchaan le gaya“. One splash, and your identity is gone. Not your looks. Your identity. The things one sees and recognises you by — the nose, the cheeks, the mouth. All that’s gone. Walking into Meghna Gulzar’s film, you expect this horrific theme to repeat itself, and it does. What you don’t expect is the acid-attack survivor who giggles that — with the compensation money she will get from the government — she might go in for Alia Bhatt’s looks. This is a movie about despair. It is also, surprisingly, filled with laughter and hope.

Meghna and her co-writer Atika Chohan opt for a very unusual structure. Chhapaak opens with images of a protest. “We want justice!” Hundreds of angry citizens strain against police barricades — but the thing they are railing against is an incident of rape. What has this got to do with Malti’s (Deepika Padukone) story, based on the real-life survivor Laxmi Agarwal whose PIL resulted in a set of restrictions on the sale of acid? The point is that rape is so widely reported and rallied against that acid attacks occupy a lower rung in the hierarchy of crimes against women. The point is that there isn’t much difference in the punishment for throwing hot tea on someone’s face versus throwing acid. The point is that acid attacks aren’t always about advances being rebuffed. It could also be that you are from an oppressed caste and dream of becoming a software engineer, and someone higher up the societal chain decides that this dream must literally be scorched.

As well-intended and necessary as these messages are, you don’t want a movie that keeps lecturing at you with the bluntness of a placard. This is, again, where the structure helps. We meet Malti seven years after the attack, when the “wound” has healed to an extent, both externally and internally. We are never allowed to forget the magnitude of what happened — because we are shown, painstakingly, how slowly and how horribly a face changes after acid is splashed on it. This montage, which appears early on, is always at the back of the mind. And yet, Chhapaak isn’t the angry film I thought it would be. It isn’t the equivalent of Malti’s agonised scream when she catches sight of herself in the mirror after the attack.

And we come to the often-overlooked point that writing for the screen, about an issue, is very different from writing a heartfelt editorial. The latter is about the what. The former is also about the how. It’s not just that you want to show what happened to Malti, but also how you want to show it all. Manu Ashokan’s Uyare went about the subject in a chronological manner, where you develop the characters first and then stage the acid attack. Chhapaak follows a more convoluted structure that dares to ask a difficult question: Why not look at Malti after she has gotten over the immediacy of the trauma, after she has begun to get on with her life.

Our first glimpse of the seven-years-later Malti, thus, is at a beauty parlour. As a “touch”, it’s undoubtedly heavy-handed. But Meghna and editor Nitin Baid keep the film flowing so smoothly that the heaviness doesn’t linger. (Malay Prakash’s cinematography bathes the film in light as gentle as its tone. There’s no high-contrast work. The cinematography isn’t “heavy”, either.) This beauty parlour is just one of many places Malti is trying to get employed in. She wants to move on. She tells her father she has had enough of counselling. There’s another potentially “heavy” moment where a prospective employer tells Malti that she never told him she looked like this. She doesn’t seethe. She doesn’t seem stung. She simply says there’s no space in the application form for “Are you an acid-attack victim?”. It’s an extension of the opening scene, a subtle plea to begin to see acid attacks as a separate category of violence.

I did not care at all for Raazi, but after seeing Chhapaak, I think I see better what the problem is. I don’t think tense, tight, melodramatic plot machinations are Meghna’s thing. I think she is more like her father, and in the loose way Chhapaak wraps itself around its core issue, it really feels like one of his films. Even when Malti’s case is in progress (or later, during her PIL sessions), we never see her seethe and rage. Her most poignant lines are barely a whisper: “Kitna achcha hota agar acid bikta hi nahin. Milta bhi nahin to phenkta bhi nahin.” The heavier emotions are left to a rich benefactress and Malti’s lawyer (a quietly forceful Madhurjeet Sarghi), whose husband (Anand Tiwari) is a delightfully Gulzarian figure. He is the Sanjeev Kumar at home while his wife Suchitra Sens her way around the aandhi of various courtrooms, and their daughter becomes the film’s marker of time. First, she is a little girl complaining about her pigtails. By the end, she is a teenager trying to sneak out in a miniskirt.

This is not to say that Chhapaak snatches away all agency from Malti. In her own way, she is running a crusade. There’s that PIL, for one — it’s her doing. Plus, she finds work in an NGO for acid-attack survivors run by Amol (Vikrant Massey) — and who better to understand and empathise with what these women are going through? Vikrant Massey is terrific as a driven man who’s afraid the world will come to a halt if he relaxes even for a second. And it’s with him that Chhapaak takes its boldest narrative leap. Amol becomes Malti’s love interest, a situation described by a very Gulzarian phrase: “silent pyaar“.

Uyare — where Parvathy Thiruvothu played the acid-attack survivor, named Pallavi — skirted around this issue a bit, with the character played by Tovino Thomas. At the end, Pallavi says “let’s be friends”. That is certainly one way to write such a story, because given the circumstances, we feel love is perhaps too minor a deal: there are More Important Things to be dealt with. But now that seven years have passed, Chhapaak asks: But why not? It’s touching to see a woman like Malti not hide herself from the world. It’s important to break the Beauty and the Beast fairy-tale cliché that looking different means locking yourself up. The superb subversion, here, is that the conventionally good-looking Amol is more of a “beast”, in the way he snaps and snarls. You expect that he’d be the one to draw Malti out of her shell. Marvellously, it’s the other way around.

This confidence in Malti affected me hugely. Chhapaak comes at acid attacks from all possible angles: from the cops investigating the case to the lawyers in court, from the insensitive reporter who asks Malti “Aage shaadi ka kya plan hai?” to her brother who is teased in school about having a “beast” for a sister. But the film isn’t only about darkness. Get this! While preparing for the case, Malti’s lawyer takes the time to train a student. It’s a brilliant touch that expands the universe of the film. Thanks to Malti, this young man — who has no real reason to be in the movie, whom we would not miss even if he were absent — is getting a lesson about how courtrooms work. There’s a bracing practicality about Chhapaak, especially when it addresses that reporter’s question: “Aage shaadi ka kya plan hai?”

Even the first call between Malti and Amol has traces of a meet-cute in a rom-com. We are so conditioned to notions of “propriety” that some viewers may balk at what may appear as trivialising Malti’s life. Aren’t there more important things she should be doing? But I loved that she wanted the same things other girls her age want — and yes, she’s a mere schoolgirl when the attack happens. Deepika is just lovely. She does this thing where she scrunches in her shoulders and grins almost sheepishly, and even later, when the prosthetic makeup comes on, this tic registers. These portions in school lead to the final writing flourish, because this is when we see what Malti was really like before a man destroyed her life — this girl with big dreams, this girl who had a crush on a boy who gave her a rose, this girl who danced to the Kal Ho Naa Ho title song (which comes back to haunt her later).

Chhapaak doesn’t leave you shattered, exactly — because the tone of the narrative is deceptively casual. There are places that feel rushed, where I wanted to get into Malti’s headspace a little more. But I was grateful the film did not focus on the obvious and always kept trying to reframe the trauma in new ways, take it to new places — like that romance. Because by the end, it’s clear that that happy ending, if it indeed is one, is only for Amol and Malti. There are other girls who will not be so lucky. Even while zooming in on this one woman, Chhapaak never loses sight of the larger world outside. Amol tells Malti — he wonders aloud, actually — that we all have evil inside us, but some of us act on it. Why? It’s an enormous existential conundrum, but it feels balloon-light because the conversation assumes the tone of a casual chat, and it’s staged in the most casual of locations, a bus. What could have been a “message” becomes a musing. Like everything else in the film, there’s a welcome touch of lightness. 

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi