CHHAPAAK : Gruelling Horror, Triumphant Human Spirit, & A Deeply Moving Experience

It has been a few hours now since I have watched Chhapaak, Meghna Gulzar‘s new film based on acid violence, and inspired by the journey of Laxmi Agarwal – right from the horrific attack, her painful fight back, and her plunging into the larger cause to arrest the issue at its root. Yes it has been a few hours, and I still haven’t gathered myself to write in detail about it. It has been an overwhelming experience and the horror of what unfolded on the screen for two hours is still seeping deep into my skin, still shaking me up and the shock is difficult to come out from. The film feels so disturbingly real from its first frame to last – the trauma almost leaves you feel violated, but at the same time you can’t look away from these tremendous champions of life and their amazing story of hope.

There are several things about acid violence that Meghna wants to address through her film. As an anchor plot, she takes the story of Malti, who faced the inhuman acid violence at all of nineteen, and how it annihilates her life and everything around it permanently. But Meghna is far more ambitious in her overall aspirations for the film. In her mind, Chhapaak isn’t just a deeply personal story of an individual’s pain and triumph, she wants to address a much broader horizon. She wants to make it as much a story of many other survivors raising the awareness that the nature of crime is possibly as heinous as rape but somehow it isn’t dealt with the equal intensity in the court of law. She wants to address the struggle that Laxmi had to go through for 7+ long years chasing a PIL of putting a holistic ban on the sale of acid in order to prevent the crime at its root. She wants to expose the outlook of the society, right from close members of the family, to police, to media towards these survivors, who all tend to judge it through the lens of character assassination of the victim rather than the assaulter. She wants to leave a note on various possible triggers of hyper masculine ego, rage or class divide that leads to this heinous toxic behavior with no subsequent realization of guilt or repentance by the attacker. And she also wants to celebrate the unflinching courage and strength of these brave young women and their indomitable spirit who would not let the most horrific life altering event of their lives to rob them off their agency. These are all very serious and heavy themes, and Meghna’s craft deserves a huge applause the way she stitches them all together to keep her storytelling extremely grounded, matter of fact, and yet constantly engaging on the whole.

Yes, it may seem that there is too much to handle in one given film and if the ambition of the filmmaker has somewhat weighed down the emotional impact of the film like this should ideally have. But in my mind, it was very important to raise the film to its wider horizon and address the larger devil in the room. Meghna has categorically said that she has been extra cautious in this film to ensure that her storytelling is no way getting manipulative or melodramatic. She also does not want to soften any blows or sugarcoat the ugliness of the heinous crime, and hence the tonality and the documentary narrative style that she adopts for some parts of the film comes out as a well thought through decision. The focus does seem to waver though in an attempt to integrate everything together, and it is especially true for a part of the film that immediately follows the interval, where some people in the audience (who are possibly expecting a deeper and more personal story of Malti’s triumph only) may tend to find it messy and somewhat detached for a while.

Meghna chose consciously that Chhapaak is not just about Malti’s backstory or a deeper insight into her struggle, the decision possibly coming from a line of thought that there is nothing unique about Malti as a person as to why it had to happen to her, it could just happen to anyone, anywhere, even in the most secured enclosures amidst the most known people. The journey from a victim to a survivor to a change agent is then a natural progression and that could be the broader story for any brave soul if she is able to get the necessary societal support behind her. Laxmi / Malti are then more of incidental anchors of this struggle. I personally felt taking this broader outlook was much needed and Meghna Gulzar and co-writer Atika Chohan need to be applauded for the courage that they show to rise above the expected, even at the risk of their film coming out as more activist and less humane. In fact, there isn’t one place where Meghna loses her deeply sensitive gaze or a grounded human lens in spite of her approach, and her cautiously muted tone helps to keep her story far more realized in ambition and realistic in execution.

Yes, may be there was a scope to tighten up the screenplay in a few places to keep the pacing and the overall focus more streamlined. In fact, the film could have still shown more courage to do away with the situations to facilitate the placement of a background song. It also didn’t particularly need one scene towards the end seeking a more traditional realization of romance between Malti and Amol (the silent pyar had enough chemistry and spark). But then these are possibly some demands Meghna had to keep in mind to make the film more accessible and likeable, for her powerful film to reach a wider audience across social structures.

For all the little cribs that one can possibly still have here and there about the film’s screenplay or narrative flow, it gets enough and more compensated by the stellar performances that hold the film together. Very next to the extremely important subject of the film, the strongest reason to celebrate the film is Deepika Padukone‘s outstanding portrayal of Malti. It is her most challenging role ever, and it is possibly safe to say it is her most brilliant one too. I don’t even want to call it a stellar performance because she is so good that you don’t find Deepika anywhere in the film. She fully embodies Malti right from her first appearance on screen, and completely loses herself in every possible way to become her character. It is an extremely restrained and graceful portrayal and yet it fully conveys the inexplicable trauma that Malti goes through not only when she is first attacked or her journey of seven painful surgeries for face reconstruction; but every time she relives the horror in her mind as she witnesses other survivor stories unfold in front of her; or every time she is assaulted emotionally by her abuser’s glances, or a scathing journalist, or the casual bystander during her long court battle. The magic lies in how Deepika lives through her silent glances, her perfected nuances, her consistent labored smiles, and her stoic internalized pain. Malti is a woman of few words, and Deepika displays terrific maturity and an amazing control on her craft to naturally ace Malti’s complete trajectory from being an aspiring teenager wanting to be the next Indian Idol; to become a broken, reclusive victim who has locked herself up in a room away from the scary stares of the world; to eventually grow and transform to be the face of securing the first victories over acid violence. If anything, Meghna could have enabled her even better, had she chosen to impregnate Malti with a few more graceful pauses or do away with a couple of sudden tonal jerks in one or two crucial moments of the films. But even as is, Malti leaves us shocked, horrified and teary eyed in multiple places. Take a bow Deepika Padukone, you have elevated Meghna’s vision to the next level by your masterful craft and have dissolved yourself completely into Malti to haunt us for many more years to come.

The others in the ensemble give brilliant performances as well. It takes an actor of Vikrant Massey‘s calibre to land an imperfect and messy Amol so perfectly on screen. Did he demand a deeper writing and a larger screen presence? Yes. But it would then have to come at the expense of compromising on the larger context of the film, and that wasn’t too desirable. He still shines like a pole star, and the little moments of silence that Meghna builds up between him and Malti gives a much needed warm coziness to the film. Madhurjeet Sarghi delivers the other fine performance of the film as Malti’s lawyer, and hopefully we will see a lot more from her in days to come. All the other performances of the film also blend in well perfectly in tune with the overall tonality, and the actors who play Bashir Sheikh, the attacker, and Malti’s father especially deserve a shouout even in their smaller roles.

The film scores extremely well on certain technical aspects as well. The most important mention of course needs to be of the prosthetics and its detailing to track down the various milestones of Malti’s journey, right from the totally burnt up face and hair to minute reconstructed details of interim stages like a disfigured nose or no ear to hang a dangler from. The impact is amplified as the screenwriters are able to land some solid dialogues at the appropriate places to amplify the pain, and the actor sheds all her vanity to completely submit herself to the nakedness of the physical horror. The background score is also used judiciously to steer clear of any manufactured emotions. Wish I could say the same about the songs as well – by themselves, they are good songs, but are possibly not as justified in the film other than the title track. The editing and parts of screenplay could have been sharper as well as already mentioned earlier. It is important to touch upon such technical aspects of the film especially because Meghna herself has had such a technical approach to the film as well, in order to achieve everything that she aspired for from the film.

Does she achieve everything with a resounding success and deliver a flawless film from start to end? May be not. But Chhapaak as a film is so much more than the sum of its parts. It goes deep, it goes wide, it goes dark, it goes hopeful, it goes cynical and it goes real. And it certainly delivers one of the most disturbing, deeply moving and soul stirring experiences at the cinemas!

To Meghna, To Malti, To Laxmi and To every brave heart out there who is constantly fighting this unthinkable battle as the true champion of life – Hugs, Hearts and Hurray!

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Copyright ©2020 Jayashree Chakravarti. This article cannot be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL can be used instead.

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