Chhapaak review: Deepika Padukone exposes the caustic mentality that’s responsible for acid attacks

While the film needed a more robust screenplay, director Meghna Gulzar and screenwriter Atika Chohan observe great sensitivity in telling the story of acid attack victim Laxmi Agarwal

Rating: 3 /5

Deepika Padukone in Chhapaak [2020]

In times where one is screaming for justice for countless victims of sexual crimes, how can one not raise a voice against the barbaric acid attack on our women. The 80s, 90s were notorious for such crimes, often committed by spurned boys and men. Somewhere, the rising sexual crimes has perhaps turned our attention away from acid attacks.

Ab rape ke saamne acid attack ka kya mukhya roop,” (How can a acid attack merit more attention than a rape) Amol Dwivedi [Vikrant Massey] tells a TV reporter. Director Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak [2020] draws our attention to the horrors of acid attacks.

In 2005, one was left disturbed by the acid attack on 15-year-old Delhi resident Laxmi Agarwal by Naeem Khan, who was 32 then. Agarwal though would later rise above her hell and lead the ‘Stop Acid Sale’ campaign to prevent such barbaric crimes.

Chhapaak gives us a fictionalized account of the terrible crime and Laxmi’s gritty fight against the sale of acid.

Malti Agarwal [Deepika Padukone] is left scarred for life after after a horrific acid attack. The victim though musters courage to not just fight her personal battle but also lead the fight for many like her. Malti joins Amol’s Chhaya Foundation, a Non Government Organisation that works for the aid of acid attack victims. Led by Malti, Chhaya foundation files a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on the sale of acid.

While Bollywood has raised awareness about sexual crimes, but it’s seldom touched upon acid attack. The escapist Bollywood audience tends to turn away from films on rape, so it’s an herculean task to get them look at the Maltis of the world. We hope audiences embrace Chhapaak because this turning blind eye to one’s suffering all the more adds to the pain of acid attack victims.

Screenwriter Atika Chohan and Gulzar’s Chhapaak just doesn’t throw light on such crimes, but it exposes the society’s attitude towards acid attack victims. An acid attack just doesn’t deface a victim, but it takes away her/his identity. The loss of identity often leaves its victims in despair. The physical pain can be overcome, but it takes huge courage and time to overcome the mental scars. It’s here that that attitude of society towards acid attack victims plays a crucial part. Sadly, in India, acid attack victims face economic and social discrimination. Insensitive police, media often draw flak here.

Chhapaak subtly questions the society. It reminds you that an acid attack is not just a crime of passion, but such fit of rage is found in patriarchal, casteist minds, as revealed in the stories of other victims in the film. For economically poor victims like Malti, such terrible incident poses financial and emotional challenges to the family. Relationships are tested. There are moments of despair that threaten to tear apart a family. Malti’s mother [played by Geeta Agarwal] is her strongest pillar of support but the financial constrains, lack of justice, break her spirit. It’s underlined no better in a scene where Malti calls her mother, and the first words coming out of Mrs. Agarwal’s mouth are, “Have you got your salary?” Its these moments that give an idea of the hell that a poor family goes through when confronted with such dark reality.

It is here that a Malti is lucky to find an external support in the form of Amol [Massey]. The Amol-Malti relationship though doesn’t blossom in your typical Bollywood style. Amol is sensitive but he has his frustrations, too. Battling many cases, gathering funds for victims’ surgeries. Well, running an NGO is never an easy task. Given that Laxmi and Alok Dixit have separated, perhaps, Gulzar and Chohan have underplayed the Malti-Amol relationship. But they also didn’t want to digress from the core issue.

Massey has a limited presence but Gulzar fittingly gets a man to ask the most important question, “I want to know why he (accused) did it? Before it came into his hand, the acid was in his mind,” Amol tells Malti. It’s very easy to get carried away by emotions and make sweeping judgments but Gulzar is not one to resort to gender bashing. She questions the patriarchal mindsets, and that isn’t limited to the accused men in the film. The intimidation by the mother and sister of the main accused is a reminder that regressive women, too, are responsible for encouraging patriarchy.

Chhapaak ticks all boxes in terms of the message, the awareness it wanted to create, but it needed a more taut screenplay. A gruesome subject like acid attack can never have a conventional Bollywood narrative with its revenge undertone. Gulzar’s great strength is handling such subjects with great sensitivity – as seen in Talvar [2015] and Raazi [2018]. She brings that humane quality here, too, but Chhapaak has its drag moments too. Without being offensive to all victims, the first half is rather sedate and there’s not enough engagement.

For a brilliant actor that he is, you wished to have seen a bit more of Vikrant Massey. No, not the romance but Amol’s hardships deserved more attention.

Malti’s Stop Acid Sale campaign is not in your face, but the discussion among the legal bench, presiding over Malti’s PIL is not engaging enough. The bench though subtly hints at the lack of political will in dealing with barbaric crimes.

It would be a cardinal sin and offensive to acid attacks victims to talk about Deepika Padukone’s look, prosthetic. Some may be critical of the way the attack is captured with the victim not getting defaced as one would associate with an acid attack. The visual effects could have been bettered here, but that would be akin to reopening old wounds.

Chhapaak is essentially a Deepika Padukone show. Given its grim story, Padukone is largely restrained in her act. In fact, we hear very little from Malti. It’s natural for a victim to take time to regain their confidence. Perhaps, Padukone is a tad underwhelming in emoting the internal despair of Malti. But the events in the first half don’t really allow Padukone to express herself. The lady though comes into her own in the business end. As hard as Gulzar tried, but getting Padukone (34) to look like a 18 -year-old Delhi school girl in particular scenes was always going to be a hard task.

Geeta Agarwal is terrific as Malti’s mother. Unheralded actress Madhurjeet Sarghi , who plays Malti’s lawyer Archana Bajaj, too, chips in with a measured act.

The cast does an amiable job but Chhapaak needed a more robust screenplay. Gulzar and Padukone though deserve praise for observing great sensitivity in telling this subject. Laxmi Agarwal has got justice in her personal battle, but the war against acid attacks is far from over. Agarwal would hope that this film will further strengthen her resolve.

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