A few days before Chhapaak, the film on acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal, hit the screens, Deepika Padukone who plays the protagonist joined the students of JNU University in their protest against the government. This was viewed as a PR exercise, an extension of the film’s promotion. The politics over this act has left for little room to understand the more vital queries regarding whether cinema succeeds in replicating real life and to what extent it should without compromising on the merit and necessity that art demands.
PR is often necessary for any work, and more so a film that is not populist and deals with a sombre subject. Besides, on almost every promotional event, Laxmi has been present alongside Deepika and has received much respect.
However, the laudatory comments on Deepika’s brave act have overshadowed the bravery of Laxmi as well as those even further down the pecking order. In fact, is bravery the right word at all? Many films have been made on heroes of our freedom struggle – are the actors considered brave for doing so?
The media as well as social media got divided into the RW dismissing the film because the actor was present at a place they have political issues with and the liberal fraternity that couldn’t stop raving about it.
The Uttarakhand government has decided to give a monthly pension of upto Rs.10,000 to acid attack survivors. While this is welcome, the crux of acid availability and legal laxity in dealing with attackers remains. Laxmi was attacked in 2005. Her attacker Naeem Khan got bail and even got married. Later, he was given a mere seven years in jail. She filed a PIL to ban the sale of acid, but it did not lead to a complete ban.
Her life was ruined forever. Yes, forever. Because while she has risen to become a motivational speaker, a TV anchor, an activist, and the subject of a film, she is still viewed as an oddity. One young female actor even used the word “cringing”, and it was meant as a compliment.
Laxmi said in an interview, “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.”
The fact is that even the film on her life does not carry her face. So, what really did the film achieve? With all its good intent, performances and projection, it was an underwhelming experience for me. There are many positive aspects, but those also work against it.
Director Meghna Gulzar does not sensationalise any bit. There is no gaze of pity. This is great. However, at points it becomes so legalistic and technical that it overshadows the emotive aspects. That scream of Malti (Laxmi renamed in the film) before the mirror when she first sees herself after the attack by Basheer Khan (Naeem in real life) is real, but we don’t feel the core of her trauma. She seems unmoved in court in the presence of her attacker too.
While it was important to focus on the main character and not give too much attention to the attacker, this non-demonisation leaves him looking like a wishy-washy bystander and not the epitome of evil that he was. There is also not much said about the patriarchal notion of ownership of a woman.
The title Chhapaak refers to the sound of acid being flung. It really is the sound of destruction, and in a movie that speaks about rising about it, mending one's life, I wonder how apt it is.
Malti has generous friends, lawyers and doctors, which is heartening. But there is no attempt at looking at the lesser privilege of the other victims who also work at the NGO. In fact, she does not show enough empathy towards one of them when she mentions the surgeries she needs to have, whereas Malti herself has managed to get herself seven.
There are beautiful moments of Malti’s joy over small victories and her general optimism. It posits beautifully against the NGO founder Amol’s cynicism. Their love story is one of hope.
The film begins with a reference to the protests following Nirbhaya’s rape and the lack of media interest in acid attacks. Amol says, “Rape ke aage acid attack ki kya pohunch (What say does an acid attack case have when compared to rape)?” It would’ve been a good observation on hierarchy of victims except that Malti herself is the subject of a film and he says at a later stage that Malti was now a celebrity.
Irony often defeats the message.