Chhapaak is a story of how sexual violence disfigures our lives, writes Ankita Mukherjee
“Unhone meri surat badli hain, mera mann nahi” (He ruined my face, not my spirit). That, in essence, sums up the ethos behind Meghna Gulzar’s latest film Chhapaak, a story about acid-attack survivors who find the courage to fight, leaving their fear and shame behind. The story is about an ordinary girl, Malti (played by Deepika Padukone) who gets attacked by a much older man Basheer Shaikh aka Babboo (Vishal Dahiya) whose offer of marriage she spurns. That detail is quite incidental and is revealed at the very end because the film isn’t so much about the plight of one individual as much as that of every woman whose life can be turned upside down by the cruelty and callousness of others.
The movie, based on the real life story of an acid-attack victim Laxmi Agarwal, unfolds slowly through Malti’s struggles, the seven surgeries she undergoes but yet can’t restore her face, how they would have financially ruined her family but for the help of a guardian angel, Shiraz Aunty (Payal Nair), who helped them and her lawyer Archana (Madhurjeet Sarghi) who, at one of the court proceedings makes the film’s most trenchant critique of our society, saying “Attacks unhi ladkiyon pe hota hain jo padhna chahti ho ya aage badhna chahti ho” (It’s girls who want to study and get ahead who get attacked). She finds a job when she happens to meet Amol (Vikrant Massey) who works in an NGO (Chhaya) for acid attack survivors.
Many Indian households store acid bottles, used for cleaning bathrooms or kitchens, and they are so cheap and so readily available. So Malti decides to file a public interest litigation (PIL) to ban the retail sale of acid. As she says, “Kitna accha hota agar acid bikta hi nahi, milta hi nahi toh fekta bhi nahi” (If only acid wasn’t sold, wasn’t available it couldn’t be thrown). After a seven-years battle, she partially succeeds. While she is unable to make a case for a complete ban, the court instructs the government to more tightly regulate the sale of acid and ensure its end use is bonafide. After multiple cases of acid attacks, a new amendment was made to section 335 of the Indian Penal Code to deal specifically to grievous injuries caused by horrendous crimes like acid attacks.
‘Chhapaak’ marks Padukone’s debut as a producer and Gulzar’s third film after ‘Talwar’ and ‘Raazi’ in five years. Padukone slips effortlessly into Laxmi’s skin as Malti and embraces her suffering and struggle as her very own. Though she looks less disfigured in the film than many acid attack survivors, the suffering she conveys feels incredibly real. The movie doesn’t overdramatize its dialogues and barring a few lights, romantic scenes between Malti and Amol stays true to its message. Vikrant as Amol plays a very supportive role throughout the movie.
Padukone has recently been in the news after she attended the protests at JNU with right-wing critics claiming it was a publicity stunt to promote her movie. But the movie is very much of the same ethos as the protests, in that it seeks to draw public attention to the acceptance of intolerance and violence in our society. If a woman who stands up for her herself and her right to live her life as she chooses can be so brutally disfigured, it’s time we looked at ourselves in the mirror and see what we have become.