Bar-beee-ric. Barbaric. The word rolls off with delicate unease from Malti (Deepika Padukone). She’s leading a friend, a fellow acid attack survivor, down the aisles of a store. They are reading social media comments on a recent victory of their NGO, which works for acid victims. “What does barbaric mean?” the friend asks. “Perhaps something very bad,” Malti says. They thumb through a few more comments, until one stings. “These girls look like ghosts…,” someone has written. For a moment, their spirits droop, with Malti looking down.
Director Meghna Gulzar closes the scene with a joke, relaxing the mood a little.
Chhapaak, Meghna’s third feature in five years, treads a fine line between hope and despair. It doesn’t always succeed; there are tonal excesses in this film that elude her older, more surgical grip. But the intent shines through.
More importantly, the film does not contrast one kind of emotion with another. The lighter moments are well scattered within the script, which remains stark without turning severe. Chhapaak leaves you with a smile even as it unnerves you with fact.
The film opens in 2012, in the throes of the Nirbhaya protests. Through a friend, Amol (Vikrant Massey) comes in contact with Malti, who was attacked several years back and has been petitioning for restricted acid sale in India. Amol hires Malti for his NGO — there’s a fun bit about lack of funds that grows into something more biting, as we learn of the intense financial pressures on Malti and her family.
In a previous scene, she trails off in the middle of an interview, pressing the journalist for job openings at her channel. These are nifty touches, revealing the grueling circumstances in which such battles are fought.
Malti’s face has been reconstructed seven times — she couldn’t afford the surgeries, and had to depend on a family benefactor. The hurdles of life are aplenty, but nothing deters her from her goal.
Eventually, the story branches out: into parallel tracks about Malti’s victories in court. She’s fighting a case against her perpetrator, an older man named Bashir, while pursuing a PIL on acid laws.
Our knowledge of the respective outcomes (the film is based on Laxmi Agarwal) does not hinder the drama. As Malti’s lawyer, Madhurjeet Sarghi gets a sharp line about the banning of eggs over acid; elsewhere, she watches on in horror as the Chemical Minister skips out on court (he’s attending his son’s wedding).
Along the way, the film picks up testimonies of other survivors: a girl attacked over rejection, another over caste. Each incident is narrated by the victim, often without visual. Malti, too, forbids Amol from claiming her journey as his own.
Chhapaak has a strange relationship with sound. The scenes at Malti’s home play without score. The police investigation and court proceedings are paced like a thriller. The love story, meanwhile, is sparse but suitably sunny.
Meghna’s knack for musical irony is followed through from Raazi (2018). In her new film, we hear two songs that seem out of place: Arijit Singh’s wailing title track and a replay of Kal Ho Na Ho. Both are bait — the film smartly swaps out their context near the end, reversing our response without reversing the scene.
Earlier this week, Deepika Padukone turned up at the JNU campus, standing in with students brutally attacked by goons. Her impromptu appearance sparked online furore, with many dismissing it as a publicity stunt.
You can view the film along similar lines: a Bollywood appropriation of a dire and lengthy cause. Or you can view it as something else — a quiet show of solidarity, at a time of urgent need.
Cast: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey
Direction: Meghna Gulzar