Directed by Meghna Gulzar and written by Atika Chohan, Chhapaak is based on the real-life story of acid attack victim Laxmi Agarwal, a character renamed as Malti in the film, which Deepika Padukone plays with utmost conviction.
The film adopts an approach that is usually not the norm for the treatment of a story like this, and that’s where its beauty lies. Instead of asking us to sympathise with acid attack victims, it asks us to fight against the occurrence of the crime itself, and places Malti as the face of the movement – Malti, who is shown smiling, walking and talking confidently for majority of the duration of the film, and crying and screaming only for the part when she faces the attack and sees her face for the first time after it.
When we are introduced to Malti, she has already gone through the acid attack, is working in a beauty parlour, and is hunting for more stable jobs. She appears to be just another ordinary girl going about her business, until the woman she was catering to, asks her to apply for jobs where they accept “disabled” people. In a job interview, she is asked why she didn’t mention her condition in the resumé. Malti has probably gotten used to this treatment of alienation and sudden words of pity coming out of nowhere, but we can see that it still pierces her heart, although she has now learned to embrace her life the way it is. In a very short scene in a bus, Malti smiles at a little girl who smiles back, definitely not affected at all by how she looks. But it is the girl’s mother who tries to distract her from locking eyes with Malti.
Along with the ongoing court case against Malti’s perpetrator, she also files a PIL for the ban on selling of acid – a seemingly simple law to pass but not quite in practice. The film has also portrayed the situations that a family of an acid attack victim finds itself in – the horrible bullying that Malti’s brother faces, and the over-protectiveness of her mother, who wishes for the safety of other women as well and is supportive of the cause her daughter is fighting for but is understandably concerned about her well-being.
We would guess that it took Malti years to get over what was done to her, but we don’t get to see much of those years. Hers is a character that has been shown to take a giant leap from being helpless and vulnerable, to empowered and accepting of herself. We are told that she can be happy too, and it should not be a matter of surprise. Her association with Amol (played brilliantly by Vikrant Massey) and his NGO called Chhaya, which works for the emancipation of acid attack victims, brings out more of her radiance and dynamism.
She loves carrying out social media campaigns, checking out the number of likes and reading out loud the comments that come in favour of them. Amol feels that she is a bit too cheerful for someone who should be projected as a serious personality to the media. But Malti wants to party even if it is a small win for the cause she is championing, and she can party, because why not? Can she help it if she feels cheerful? The love story between Malti and Amol develops very organically as well and has been projected as something that happens alongside the main events in the film, without making a separate subplot out of it.
Chhapaak is a winner because it makes you question how long you would wallow in self-pity, while the world goes on treating you as “disabled”, humiliates your family and keeps asking you unwarranted questions like what are your plans for getting married. The scene of the attack is shown twice, sending chills down your spine as you watch a kind Sardarji pouring cold water over Malti’s burnt face. But by that time, the film has established her as a strong free-spirited woman who doesn’t hesitate to ask for a job from the journalist interviewing her, and you already know that she isn’t your subject of pity. She is to be respected and looked up to. You find yourself rooting for her to stand up, face the world, and teach the bad guys a lesson while lighting up the world with her smile. She comes off as a superhero, not because she has won a battle, but because she has chosen to carry on fighting it, yet not missing a beat when it comes to celebrating little moments of victory.
While talking about Chhapaak, we cannot go without mentioning the 2019 Malayalam film Uyare, directed by Manu Ashokan, and starring Parvathy Thiruvothu. While Chhapaak is largely about Malti’s fight for justice for herself and for others, Uyare is about a strong-willed woman called Pallavi who braves the odds for fulfilling her dreams of becoming a pilot after an acid attack incident. Uyare focusses sufficiently on Pallavi’s life before the attack, bringing to perspective the toxic relationship that led to the crime, and acting as a beacon for the identification of such relationships. Both the films, very well-made and impactful in their respective ways, tell stories of women who had to face violence just because they dared to stand up against abuse. However, they also succeed in celebrating the undying spirit of womanhood and treat a sensitive issue with the required appropriation and delicateness.