The visuals have ended. The screen has turned black. All you hear is Arijit Singh’s soulful voice. The movie has finished. Yet more than half the audience remains seated. Unstirring. Silent. I haven’t seen a movie end like this in a long time. Chhapaak. Written and directed by Meghna Gulzar.
The film, starring Deepika Padukone and Vikrant Massey, is the real-life story of Laxmi Agrawal. Malti, a young girl in her last year of school is attacked with acid by a man whose romantic overtures she’d ignored. It is a story which everyone knows now. And one expects it to be a difficult watch, given the extent of physical mutilation caused by acid. So why would one go to watch a movie like that? You would. For the director’s treatment of the story.
Any other filmmaker in her place would have started the story-telling by first showing the young girl with all her physical beauty. And then showing the gruesome distortion caused by the acid violence. It would have heightened the impact of the crime. But not Meghna Gulzar. She starts off by showing a girl with a disfigured face, struggling to find a job. There are so many other challenges in Malti’s path besides her face.
And yet, despite her visible trauma, she finds time to help others like her. She goes through the grind of the abominably long judicial process. For years together. Not just to get her assailant prosecuted, but also to amend existing laws to regulate the sale of acid. She also follows her dreams. And by the time the movie ends, you realize that the so-called “loss of beauty” was hardly on top of her mind.
The strength of the film is the complete absence of melodrama. There are no preachy lines telling you what to think. Don’t go to the film expecting the film to flaunt a message. Even the court room scenes are not exaggerated. And the focus firmly remains on the trauma faced by the young girl, not on the assailant.
There are moments in the film which will linger on. A sensitive Sardarji pulls out a bottle of water from his car and washes the acid away when the rest of the bystanders simply watch. Young Malti chooses an ear-ring to wear, and then drops the idea because she doesn’t have an earlobe. Or simply when she puts her foot down and decides to party, even when her partner feels that the big battle isn’t over yet.
The film works because Deepika Padukone (also in her debut as producer) delivers her best, quietly emotes, minus any melodrama. Vikrant Massey delivers a fine punch of a performance. The banter and romantic scenes between the two are sweet. The supporting cast including Madhurjeet Sarghi and Payal Nair are suitably chosen and do justice to their roles. And just when you think you have a happy ending, the film makes you sit up.
This is a short film of 2 hours. This is not a film which will make you squirm. But it is a film which will make you think. As one of dialogues in the film go — the acid is in the mind, much before the acid reaches one’s hands. In Gulzar’s words:
Na chaah, na chaahat koi Na koi aisa vaada Haath mein andhera Aur aankh mein iraada.
Koi chehra mita ke Aur aankh se hata ke Chand chheentein udaa ke jo gaya Chhapaak se pehchaan le gaya.
But most of all, this film is an inspiring tribute to the resilience of Laxmi and other survivors of acid violence. If there is one continuous refrain throughout the film, it is this. Life moves on.