Fourteen years ago, Laxmi Agarwal stood waiting for a bus in the Khan Market area in New Delhi. She worked as a part-time salesperson at a bookstore. A man tapped on her back and as she turned, he threw acid on her face and disappeared into the crowd.
The liquid began melting her skin. Lying on the pavement, writhing in pain, Agarwal screamed, but no one rushed to help. After some time, a car driver took her to the hospital, where she stayed for more than two months.
For many months she could not muster the courage to look into the mirror. The day she did, the shock was too much to bear. Seeing her disfigured face, Agarwal fainted.
Her life’s story has now been depicted in the Bollywood movie ‘Chhapaak’ starring Deepika Padukone, who has worn prosthetics to replicate the damage to Agarwal’s skin.
Speaking exclusively to Gulf News tabloid! Agarwal spoke about the importance of the film in educating others.
“The movie is not only about me, but about acid attack survivors’ cause, as each one has her own story of pain and struggles,” she said.
REAL TO REEL
‘Chhapaak’ is the story of Malti (Agarwal), who fights society and rises above her battles. Based on real-life incidents, the movie is about the act of violence, which destroys the life of victims, both physically and mentally and takes away their right to life.
Written by Atika Chohan and director Meghna Gulzar, it is the first time that a mainstream Bollywood movie has captured the trauma that a victim of an acid attack goes through. Agarwal is hopeful that the movie will have a huge impact on society.
“Women go through many kinds of atrocities including rape and domestic abuse, but now another major issue has been brought to the fore. While on the one hand it will bring awareness among people about this heinous crime, on the other, it will encourage women who have been victimised to come out in the open and lead their lives with grit and confidence,” she shared.
Agarwal has led the cause of acid attacks on women and has become a role model for other survivors.
The acid attack on her (in 2005) was an act of revenge for ignoring her friend’s brother. The man had sent her text messages, which she ignored. He proposed, but was snubbed.
“I was barely 15 then, and in school,” recalled Agarwal. “The man was 32. With a bottle of liquid that probably cost him a measly Rs10, he changed my life and gave me endless pain.”
It took long for Agarwal to come to terms with reality. The remorseless man was sent to prison, but soon came out on bail and got married. The court sentenced him to seven years imprisonment and once out of prison, he led a normal life after devastating hers. As for Agarwal, she stayed indoors bearing agony and humiliation.
“Like any teenager, I was fond of music, dance, shopping and wearing trendy clothes. I was beautiful and spent hours singing,” she revealed. “Wanting to become a professional singer, I had recorded my songs and sent them to a talent hunt competition of a TV reality show hoping to get a call. But with his drastic action, this man brought an end to my dreams.”
In ‘Chhapaak’, Padukone’s face is shown as disfigured and she suffers from intense physical and mental pain. But she fights back, as Agarwal did. The latter had undergone several medical procedures that set her firmly on the path of recovery.
Even though Agarwal’s father supported and encouraged her to begin seeing new dreams, relatives posed hurdles in her way.
“They stopped meeting me and advised me not to step out of the house. It was the most difficult period of my life. But I chose not to be a victim. After all, the attack on me was not my fault,” said Agarwal. “Although a trained beautician, my face became a hurdle after the acid attack. When I went looking for a job, they said that customers would get scared of my looks. I applied at a call centre and told them no one would be seeing my face. But they replied that to get a job, I need to have a face to begin with.”
Around then, she heard of an NGO, Stop Acid Attacks, that worked to support survivors of acid attacks. She approached them and was hired immediately. Agarwal was surprised to find many young, yet responsible men engaged in the campaign against acid attacks. Alok Dixit was among them.
Over the time, the two fell in love and together they ran the campaign out of a small office in east Delhi. (In ‘Chhapaak’, Vikrant Massey plays Dixit’s role). Aggarwal’s perception of life soon began to change and she found the courage to continue her studies.
“I shed my inhibitions and decided not to cover my face anymore in public. A new confidence developed in me and I chose not to be a victim, but become victorious and face the world headlong. It was the beginning of a new life,” she stated.
CAMPAIGN AGAINST ACID SALE
Agarwal has been campaigning against acid attacks. She filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court demanding compensation for acid attack victims and seeking a ban on the sale of acid. In 2013, the court ruled in favour of her plea and imposed restrictions on acid sale. It also ordered compensation to be paid by the state governments to each acid attack victim.
Currently a motivational speaker, addressing the gatherings at major platforms, Agarwal gets pensive.
“I felt that if acid was not as readily available in the market, such cases would not have happened and the victims would have escaped the terrible fate,” she said.
She was bestowed with the International Women of Courage award by the then First Lady of US Michelle Obama in 2014. She hosted a few episodes of a TV show and walked the ramp at London Fashion Week in 2016.
With her courage and poise, she won hearts.
Director Gulzar met Agarwal in 2016 to discuss the idea about the movie. Revealing what made her work on this subject, Gulzar, who has earlier helmed commercially successful movies such as ‘Talvar’ and ‘Raazi’, said: “I realised that acid attack was happening as frequently as rape, but not being addressed and reported as widely.
“On delving deeper, I found that Laxmi’s was the landmark case — not just from the medical, but also from a criminal justice point of view. My only choice to portray Laxmi’s character on screen was Deepika. I was all the more convinced after seeing Laxmi’s pictures before she was attacked with acid. There’s an uncanny resemblance between the two.”
Terming ‘Chhapaak’ as the most challenging movie of her career, Padukone also spoke about why she did the film.
“Rarely you come across a story where you do not need an entire narration to decide whether or not to do it. The idea behind the social drama is to invoke empathy and understanding rather than paint women who have undergone the ordeal as victims. Beyond the gruesomeness and the violence, there’s a story of the human spirit and hope.”
‘Chhapaak’ also features four acid-attack survivors, who have performed without any inhibitions in front of the camera.
Kunti suffered at the hands of her husband, who poured acid on her after the couple had a heated argument in 2011.
Ritu, a former state volleyball player, was at the receiving end of an acid attack organised by her own extended family in 2012.
Bala was attacked with acid by her parents’ employer in 2012. She fought with the villagers and got her case registered.
Jeetu’s face was scarred by a 55-year-old man who was smitten by her looks. On being slighted, he took revenge in 2014.
Don’t miss it!
‘Chhapaak’ is out now in UAE cinemas.