Director: Meghna Gulzar
Cast: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey
Rating: 3 stars (Out of 5)
An urgent theme and a female lead who sheds her Bajirao Mastaani and "Padmaavat" finery and gets into the skin of a lower middle-class woman scarred for life by an acid attack make Chhapaak a Hindi cinema milestone. Director Meghna Gulzar and actor Deepika Padukone notch up a few points in this commendable effort to bring a horrific true story to the big screen, but they fall significantly shy of turning an undeniably honest, well-crafted cinematic work into a memorably moving portrait of anguish, tenacity and a fight for justice.
Written by Atika Chohan and Meghna Gulzar, Chhapaak lays bare the ugly face of masculinity, the insensitivity of society and the inadequacies of the legal system through the tale of Malti Agarwal, a character modelled on the real-life Laxmi Agarwal, who fights back after a male acquaintance-turned-stalker throws acid on her in a Delhi market in 2005 and shatters her dreams of being "the next Indian Idol".
But that is not where Chhapaak begins. The film opens amidst the intense street protests that erupted in reaction to the Nirbhaya gang rape case in December 2012. It is here that we first hear the name of Malti in a conversation between a television reporter on the spot and a journalist-turned-activist Amol (Vikrant Massey). The context of the verbal exchange is a PIL that the acid attack survivor has filed seeking a complete ban on over-the-counter sale of acid.
The legal battle has dragged on for seven years when we first meet Malti. Life is a struggle for her. Employment is difficult to come by. And there is no end to her trauma in sight as she battles to get the law to distinguish between acid attacks and other violent acts causing "grievous injury". Deepika's performance is all heart, which helps her offset the unevenness that creeps into the craft of it. There is soul in her effort, as there is in the film as a whole, but her interpretation does not have the full-bodied heave that might have transformed it into something blindingly brilliant.
Chhapaak tells the story of a woman who picks herself up and mutates from a victim to a committed combatant determined to set an example for other acid attack survivors. The dramatic force of the transition does not quite come through although the screenplay is mindful not to let its importance be undermined. Meghna Gulzar's directorial restraint cuts both ways: it lends sharpness to a few moments but blunts a few others.
Amol and Malti's paths cross when the latter lands a job in an NGO, Chhaya Foundation, which raises funds to help acid attack survivors. Like everything else in Chhapaak, the romance between Amol and Malti - the latter calls it "silent pyaar" - takes its time to evolve. But when it does, the director is at her very best, evoking in one sweep profound emotion and charming friskiness between the two characters as they probe their long-unexpressed feelings for each other. The subtlety and sensitivity that mark these tremulous moments extends to much else in the film.
Chhapaak hinges on two long flashbacks - one in the first half, the other post-interval - that recount the horror of the lead-up to the acid attack, the crime and its agonizing aftermath. In the first flashback, Malti is attacked with acid on a Delhi street and is rushed to hospital. Thus begins a series of reconstructive surgeries.
The second flashback goes further back in time - we see Malti's interactions with a much older Bashir Khan (Vishal Dahiya) and her schoolmate Rajesh (Ankit Bisht) in the days ahead of the attack that scars her face - and life - forever. But, as she asserts at one point in the film, the acid attack does not break her spirit. In this phase of the story, Deepika is passed off as a teenager. That is a stretch, to say the least.
Chhapaak provides the audience glimpses of how the law approaches acid attack cases. It alternates between a police procedural and a courtroom drama while underscoring the emotional anguish that Malti and her family face. The film tracks two parallel legal battles - one pertains to the prosecution of the perpetrator, the other to Malti's PIL seeking a ban on the sale of acid.
This gives Madhurjeet Sarghi, who plays Malti's pugnacious lawyer Archana Bajaj, a lot of footage and the chance to make an impression. She delivers a solid performance. So does Payal Nair as Shiraz Jamshedji, the do-gooder at whose home Malti's father (Manohar Teli) works as a cook. Although the screenplay does not give the parents of the protagonist as much play as they deserve, Geeta Agrawal, in the role of the mother, is strong enough not be crowded out.
Vikrant Massey's phlegmatic Amol suffers somewhat because the role isn't fully fleshed out. The actor, however, rises above the limitations imposed upon him to come up with an assured performance.
With so much crammed into 123 minutes, there are times when Chhapaak appears either to be drifting from one issue to another or inching close to bursting at the seams. But delicate directorial touches elevate some passages of the film. In a scene in which the lawyer exhorts Malti (lying in bed, her face buried in a pillow) to put up a fight, the camera frames four women - Shiraz, Malti, her mother and Archana - in a formation that places them one behind the other, indicating the nature of their struggle and the need for solidarity.
Cinematographer Malay Prakash, in only his second narrative feature as an independent DOP, is impressively unobtrusive. He captures the different spaces that Malti occupies - the streets, her home, the hospital, the courtrooms - in a manner that reflects the intimacy of her struggles while maintaining a keen, unshowy sense of distance. Editor Nitin Baid (Masaan, Raazi, Gully Boy), too, demonstrates the skill and sensibility to step back and let the subject determine the pace and rhythm of the film.
Chhapaak has several parts that are delicately crafted. But the aggregation of the elements that constitute film does not somehow yield something greater than the sum of the parts. Nonetheless the parts that work do make Chhapaak essential viewing. Watch it not just for Deepika Padukone but also for what it has to say about a social scourge that refuses to go away.