Chhapaak movie review: Deepika Padukone's acid attack saga has its moments, but not enough
Chhapaak means well, no doubt, but the screenplay is surprisingly thin, which is surprising because of director Meghna Gulzar's brilliant track record.
castDeepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey, Madhurjeet Sarghi, Payal Nair, Chitranjan Tripathy, Geeta Agarwal, Manohar Teli, Vishal Dahiya, Ankit Bisht, Vaibhav Upadhyay, Delzad Hivale, Sharvari Deshpande, Ipshita Chakraborty
Despite the standard disclaimer that appears at the start of pretty much every film these days (“any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental” etc), Chhapaak – as is evident from its promotions – is based on the true story of acid-attack survivor and activist Laxmi Agarwal. In the film she becomes Malti (played by Deepika Padukone) whose life changes forever one day when acid is thrown on her face. Malti is 19 at the time and Basheer Khan a.k.a. Babbu, a family friend, is 30. His motive: she had ignored his romantic overtures and was clearly involved with a boy in a neighbouring school.
Director Meghna Gulzar’s film, which she has co-written with Atika Chohan, is far from being a conventional high-pitched melodrama. Chhapaak’s narrative style is largely documentary-like, leaving the horror of Malti’s reality to do its work on viewer emotions. Besides, when we are first introduced to the protagonist, it is with her damaged face, and only in the climactic moments of the film do we get to see her for what she once was. Through most of the running time then, it is impossible not to compare the corroded skin on screen with the beauty we know Padukone to be. The mere thought that one human being could do this to another, that scores of men continue to do this to women in India, is obviously shocking (and yes, dear offended MRAs, stats do show that the perpetrators are mostly men). Unfortunately, the film’s bid to be understated is stretched too far.
Chhapaak means well, no doubt, but the screenplay is surprisingly thin – surprising because of Meghna’s brilliance with Raazi and Talvar. Combine that with plotline weaknesses, an excessive effort to stay low key and the unexpected shot at being a conformist fairytale in the end, and the result is a film that seems curiously detached from its heroine, despite the devastating true story that inspired it.
When Chhapaak (meaning: Splash) opens, we are in 2012 and Delhi is out on the streets protesting against a brutal gangrape on a bus. At this point, Malti has chosen to disappear from the public eye despite having earlier filed a high-profile PIL demanding a ban on the sale of acid in India. She soon starts working with an NGO for acid-attack survivors run by journalist-turned-activist Amol (Vikrant Massey). Thus begins her journey as the most visible face of this horrific crime in the country.
Chhapaak’s narrative structure, which involves some back and forth in time, is slightly confusing. When did Malti stop being desperate for a job? When did rights-consciousness overcome her despair? What might have been a natural progression in a linear storyline comes across as swings in the state of mind of both the central figure and a couple of those around her because of the jagged timeline of events.
This though is not the primary issue with Chhapaak. The primary issue is that while trying to avoid being high-decibel masala, it ends up seeming oddly uninvolved.
Perhaps I have been spoilt for Chhapaak because just last year I watched – and loved and rewatched – the Mollywood film Uyare starring the wonderful Parvathy Thiruvothu as a woman whose controlling boyfriend throws acid on her face. That Malayalam film directed by Manu Ashokan managed to be subtle yet emotionally stirring, optimistic yet heart-rending. Chhapaak tries but fails to attain that fine balance.
The film does have its positives. Such as its unobtrusive background score by Shankar Ehsaan Loy and Tubby, and a gentle title track by SEL. Or that amusing, heart-warming conversation between two survivors about the kind of face that they want post-surgery. Or the solid courtroom arguments between two lawyers who are neither wolf-whistle-worthy in the Sunny “dhai kilo ka haath” Deol league nor the twerps we usually see in commercial Bollywood. Their intelligent exchanges are real, low-volume yet gripping.
The winner among all the episodes in Chhapaak is the one where Malti in a celebratory mood has a face-off with Amol. The writing and acting in this scene are flawless.
The treatment of the villains’ Muslim identity too is interesting. The man behind the attack on the real-life Laxmi was Muslim, so too are the antagonist in Chhapaak and his accomplice, but they are portrayed factually in the film, not as ugly Muslim stereotypes of the sort that have pervaded Hindi cinema in the past couple of years. In the current political atmosphere in India, this was perhaps the trickiest part of the story and Meghna acquits herself well here. Not so smoothly done is a fleeting scene involving Malti’s brother and a member of Basheer Khan’s family.
(Alert: minor spoilers in the next four paragraphs)
Considering that Meghna’s handling of gender is usually faultless, it is surprising to see her go down a conventional path in Chhapaak’s finale. The last we see of Malti in her present-day avatar is of a man she loves acknowledging his own feelings for her. Read: the standard happily-ever-after of formulaic fairytales. A woman getting a man is the socially accepted definition of a happy ending because getting a man was and still is widely assumed to be every woman’s primary goal and ultimate achievement. In a changing world, where Hollywood has tossed convention out of the window in films like Frozen and Maleficent, and our very own Uyare refused to go down that well-worn road, it needs to be asked why Chhapaak alters Laxmi’s truth to fit this old straitjacket.
For a film that aims at realism, this and one other element are particularly jarring. You see, the real Laxmi did indeed fall in love with the founder of the NGO she worked with, they did enter into a relationship and even have a child together. The inconvenient ‘after’ to this ‘happily-ever-after’ that the film avoids though is that they soon broke up, and according to media reports, as of now she is a financially struggling single mother.
Everything else in Chhapaak is perhaps debatable, what is not is its portrayal of Malti being recruited as an anchor by Aaj Tak. Considering this media group’s reputation for wanting its female anchors to look like Fox-News-style models, this part of Chhapaak is almost laughable. It is unclear why the writers could not have thought up a fictional TV channel or, better still, come up with a more believable profession for Malti.
This passage in Chhapaak defies believability in another way. While Malti is giving an interview in Aaj Tak’s studio, a producer watching from the control room says “she is good”, and seconds later she has a job offer. Actually, Malti is particularly ineffective while answering questions in that scene. The writing and acting here are at their feeblest.
(Spoiler alert ends)
The fulcrum of Chhapaak is Padukone. The superstar, who also debuts as a producer with this film, has the benefit here of sensitive camerawork by Malay Prakash and prosthetic makeup that somewhat mirrors the real-life Laxmi’s appearance. This is a talented actor who managed to make a mark even in the horribly Islamophobic, misogynistic and clichéd Padmaavat in 2018. In Chhapaak, however, she is inconsistent. She does a good job of her present-day scenes, especially her hesitant flirtation with Amol. In the passage where she is shown as a teenaged school-goer though, she is decidedly awkward.
The supporting cast is fair enough. The one actor who truly stands out in Chhapaak is Massey playing Amol. Hindi TV’s Darling Young Man, the sturdy Dev from Lootera (2013) and the loveable, troubled Shutu from A Death In The Gunj (2017) is all grown up and a really sexy man in Chhapaak. He is so hot, and his performance so nuanced, that it becomes easy to see why Malti would fall in love with the irritable Amol.
The blend Massey achieves is what Chhapaak needed as a whole. Without that, what we are left with are good intentions, a heart in the right place, a major star taking a huge risk with an unorthodox role and a bunch of pluses that somehow do not come together to deliver an immersive experience.
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