It’s a hate crime that bludgeons you with its bestial nature and eats at your body and soul and director Meghna Gulzar’s ‘Chhapaak’ — a haunting tale of an acid attack survivor Malti — operates at a visceral and an intellectual level.
The movie, about how a man who flippantly uses acid as a weapon of control and subjugation, haunts you and makes you uncomfortable at the senselessness of the crime.
While the statistics at the end of the film about the common occurrence of acid attacks against Indian women is chilling, it’s the story of ‘Chhapaak’ that sends cold shivers down your spine. The psychological and physical trauma of an acid attack survivor unsettles you.
If you are looking for closure and neatly tied endings, you are barking up the wrong tree. ‘Chhapaak’s’ perfection lies in its imperfect frailties facing human lives. What does a woman do when her identity, dignity and her body parts are stripped off?
‘Chhapaak’, which means splash — alluding to the sound of the corrosive liquid being thrown at someone’s face, is disturbing, frustrating, sobering and overwhelming. The last emotion is brought to life by incredibly on-point acting by actress Deepika Padukone as the deliberately disfigured Malti. This is a tale of sisterhood, resilience and fighting a battle where wanting to live another day is a cause of celebration.
Played with the perfect blend of vulnerability and iron will, Padukone as Malti finds her life and dreams abruptly yanked away when a spurned suitor decides to splash the highly corrosive acid on her face. It was the pervert’s way of exacting revenge on the object of his desire who dared to reject his advances. Acid attack survivors often have this common narrative about women being targeted and stripped off their physical features to show them their place in society. Director Gulzar doesn’t bore you with statistics or exaggerated activism, but makes you shift in your seats with a story that makes you deeply uncomfortable.
The movie is also an ideal example of a perfect casting. Padukone — who is considered one of Bollywood’s most stunning and desirable women — isn’t reduced to the sum of her physical parts. Her physicality isn’t her crutch here. But she injects Malti with verve, soul and immense likeability. Her never-say-never spirit — as she campaigns for justice and ban of acid sales in India — is gratifyingly brought alive by Padukone’s sensitive portrayal of Malti. There’s so much to love about Malti. Her sheer helpless in the earlier scenes to her finding her voice feels organic.
Actor Vikrant Massey as Amol, a journalist-turned-activist for acid attack survivors, is one of the most likeable characters in Hindi cinema in 2020. He’s a rebel with a worthy cause and he plays his part — filled with triumphs and trials — realistically. His perennial need for funds to help his cause makes him a modern-day Messiah.
There’s nothing didactic about ‘Chhapaak’ either. Director Gulzar treats such a serious subject with a winsome flair. While we are always reminded of the irrevocable consequences of acid attacks against women, the team of ‘Chhapaak’ never weighs you down with the enormity of this hate crime. The movie takes time to gather steam, but it soars when it does.
While Malti’s comeback towards the mainstream society is a portrait of human spirit and resilience, ‘Chhapaak’ never overdoes the melodrama. One of my favourite scenes is Malti taking her boss and activist Vikrant Massey’s character Amol down by reminding him that she’s the one who had to survive an acid attack and not him. It’s affected her and impacted her the most and no activist can stake claim to their small victories in life. The personal dynamics between Malti and her impoverished family, her powerful battery of lawyers and other acid attack survivors is also intriguing to watch. The story is predictable, but what elevates the film is the splendid performances and the sensitive treatment to the violent, disturbing topic.
While Padukone is nearly flawless in her execution of Malti, the scenes in which she’s a high school student felt age-inappropriate. But that’s a tiny bump in an otherwise smooth drama.
Director Gulzar, Padukone and Massey have put together a story that will yank you from your comfort zone and make you wonder about a person who goes through a depraved, violent act survive.
‘Chhapaak’ is life-affirming and sobering, so don’t duck this disturbing and compelling drama.
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Director: Meghna Gulzar
Cast: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey
Stars: 3.5 out of 5