With Chhapaak, Meghna Gulzar takes laudable stance on a worthy cause without probing social realities

MK Raghavendra

Jan 17, 2020 09:35:31 IST

Popular films dealing with social issues like Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak were apparently unimaginable some years ago, but a closer look reveals that they have much in common with the decades-old mainstream films. Popular cinema in India has not merely entertained but has had instruction for audiences, usually the propagation of traditional values. The need to follow family dictates as propounded by Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) or patriotism in war as in Border (1997) are messages being conveyed. And if cinema has changed today, it is not that the relay of messages has been abandoned but that the messages are different. The importance of choice in heterosexual relationships, as in Pink (2016), or the plight of acid-attack victims as in Chhapaak are also messages but instead of being traditional, they deal with social mores relevant today. As in the old films in which all complexity was eliminated so the messages could be heard loud and clear, today’s films also simplify things for us, so much so that we even wonder at the restrictions they place on what they try to say.

 With Chhapaak, Meghna Gulzar takes laudable stance on a worthy cause without probing social realities

Deepika Padukone in a still from Chhapaak. Image via YouTube.

Chhapaak tells the story of a schoolgirl Malti Agarwal (Deepika Padukone) who is splashed with acid by a much older man Basheer Shaik (Vishal Dahiya) for rebuffing his advances, and disfiguring her for life. Basheer Shaik’s sister is complicit in the attack suggesting that the issue is not simply a man versus woman one but has wider implications, although that is not elaborated upon. Much of the film is taken up with Malti joining activist Amol (Vikrant Massey) fighting to get a ban on the sale of acid, court scenes in which Basheer Shaik’s advocate tries to get him off, and the film also enlists actual acid attack victims to appear. The subject tackled by the film is important and one desperately wants to like it but at the end, one is left wondering if the issue could have been seen in greater depth. As it is, one finds oneself praising only Deepika’s courage for appearing disfigured through a large part of the film.

Chhapaak is apparently based on a real-life event but there is nothing binding the film to this story, which is generic in nature, since there is very little in it beyond the activist angle-like the personal relationships of the protagonist, hardly dealt with. There are many other ways in which the story could have proceeded and the fact that there are so many acid attacks in India (shown at the film’s conclusion) means that the issue is a socio-political one that needs to be investigated. Blaming the free availability of acid in the market for the attacks tends to trivialise the issue, which could have something to do with patriarchy: why would a man rebuffed in romance want to disfigure the woman? Would he do it to make the woman undesirable to other men or punish her for her attractiveness? Would it not be useful to find out where they are most common (UP, Delhi and Bengal) and try to speculate on why that is so? The film is fiction and ‘speculation’ might be outside its scope but socio-political suggestions could have been woven into the narrative to make the film thought-provoking.

In films dealing with sensitive topics that are subjects for intense activist lobbying, it can be difficult to be critical due to the fear of being perceived callous and uncaring, but one must differentiate between the worthiness of the cause being expounded and the worth of the film as cinema. In order to have value as cinema, a film cannot simply take a laudable position on a worthy cause. It must have something to make the spectator sit up and think; a film about an acid attack on a woman could begin with some investigation into the mindset that causes a man to act thus. As it is, Gulzar seems to falter even in her details.

Consider the fact that Malti is a Hindu woman pursued by a Muslim man, who becomes her assailant. The director does not make much of this but is she not turning a deliberate blind eye to how relationships between Hindu women and Muslim men has become a red-hot issue in the very state where acid attacks are most frequent – Uttar Pradesh? And how does the man also persuade his sister that Malti should be attacked with acid, on what moral grounds? The story of Malti is purportedly based on that of Laxmi Agarwal, who was attacked with acid; the film may be true to the fact that the assailant was Muslim but the issue of religious affinity should have been explored rather than glossed over, which might make people attribute the actual episode entirely to religious animosities. Given the timidity of Indian cinema, this would be difficult but why be true to some facts but not to others when you are announcing the venture as fiction? Surely, complete fiction on the theme would give the director more freedom? An exploration of fact need not have a clear understanding of why something happens but fiction, since it is invention, must necessarily include that understanding.

I am not dictating what ideological position Gulzar should have taken but simply pointing out that the details she has put in are inherently ideological in today’s context and one cannot pretend they are not. A less contentious viewpoint is the film’s implicit demand for a blanket ban on the sale of acid in the market. Acid is needed in various kinds of commonplace activity – as in the construction industry – and the demand is impossible to meet, without affecting legitimate commercial interests. In a brief scene, Chhapaak shows a potential assailant procuring acid in what seems to be a pharmacy. Would a hardware store not be the place where one would procure acid and has the director even looked into that?

One of the problems with Indian films bordering on activism is that in making a case for something, they tend to overlook social details - which might not have happened if the films had not been so single-minded about their purpose. Activism-oriented films try to bring about changes in today’s social reality but, even to bring about the changes, social reality has to be understood more deeply than it is, not least because every bit of decisive action has repercussions that should be anticipated. After all this has been said, we must also place emphasis on one more factor, which is that fiction films — since they have the freedom to play with ‘facts’ — need to embrace more complexity than Chhapaak does, and construct narratives that admit they are dealing with complex issues, with problems that cannot be entirely righted with legal decisions or well-meaning legislation. Entertainment cinema, I will argue, has a greater obligation to grasp the complexities of the real world than to effect changes in it – which is the territory of the activist rather than Bollywood film-maker.

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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2020 12:57:21 IST