Chhapaak begins with a protest. And the protests, much like they are these days, are followed by the police, Delhi Police in particular, lathi-charging the assembly. Cinema mirrors society but here’s a film that mirrors the society in real-time. The specifics of the protest in the movie might be different but its ideological roots are the same.
As we’re introduced to Malti (Deepika Padukone), head on the ground after being violently attacked with acid by assailants we don’t see, director Meghna Gulzar immediately makes it clear that this film, more than anything, is about the gaze. How we view Malti, how the film views Malti, and how Malti views herself. To underline this, the director alternates between two stylistic approaches: this is a slice-of-life drama encompassed within a police procedural.
Telling a story about a gruesome case of male violence often risks narrative exploitation at the cost of the survivor. Chhapaak avoids these traps: neither does it have a victim syndrome, nor does it suffer from a saviour complex. Meghna and Atika Chohan’s screenplay, inspired by the life of Laxmi Agarwal, presents an empowering narrative that, in fact, preemptively calls out both these issues.
Years after the attack, Malti is working at an NGO run by the passive-aggressive Amol (Vikrant Massey). Money is difficult to come by and along with the job, she’s fighting a court case, has filed a PIL against the sale of acid, and has to tend to a worried mother and an ailing brother. Her life, like her face, is scarred but her dogged resolve to emerge out of that trauma is intact. The courts take time but deliver, there’s promise of some romance, and Malti won’t spare any opportunity to celebrate the happiness she rightfully deserves.
This is the best part about Chhappak. It doesn’t assign any real importance to ‘why-did-he-throw-acid’ aspect of the act. The minute you worry about the motive behind the attack, you’ve assumed that there could have been a reason for something so heinous to be done in the first place. It’s irrelevant. And hence, in the movie, relegated to the fringes. Instead, the film is about Malti’s quiet healing and how she reclaims power back from her attacker. With the help of her very solid lawyers, she turns the media spotlight into a force of social change, subverting an act of oppression into a window of opportunity.
The second best aspect about the film is how it calls out the male-saviour-complex in Massey’s occasionally overbearing character. It was important that the man in the movie isn’t some self-sacrificial, squeaky clean, Mr Goody Two Shoes. Massey’s Amol is flawed and often condescending, and he’s cut to size and gently put in his place by everyone - from the women to the guy who plies a cycle rickshaw. Amol is the guy who feels the need to overcompensate for his male privilege by going overboard with a cause he isn’t directly affected by. The movie makes sure he’s reminded of that and that the mic is passed.
The film’s solid understanding of gender politics is also revealed in scenes featuring Malti’s lawyer, Archana, played with understated grace (and a sense of casual dynamism) by Madhurjeet Sarghi. There are fleeting moments where she’s at a meeting at home and her husband (Anand Tiwari) gets the tea for her and her colleague. On other occasions, he’s shown as having picked up the daughter from school, braiding her hair and at one point, taking charge of a birthday party when the wife has to leave for work midway. The film doesn’t linger on any of these moments, neither does it celebrate him for doing what is expected in a partnership. They exist matter-of-factly, as they should.
Which finally brings us to the film’s gaze. Chhapaak revels in making visible those marginalised by social structures. It also is conscious of showing women occupying powerful places: lawyers, judge, landlady, news anchor.
And more importantly, it shows characters who’ve been survivors of acid violence as people going about their everyday life and occupying public spaces with the same comfort and legitimacy that anybody else would: laughing in shopping malls and grocery stores and singing in train compartments. Their personalities don’t hinge on their trauma but exist independent of it and that’s the biggest victory of Chhapaak.
“I want to see him,” Amol tells Malti, referring to the man who violated her. “There’s nothing about him worth seeing,” she responds, ultimately snatching the power away from him, deeming him invisible while she’s seen and heard.
While the film is consistently well-performed - Vikrant Massey is reliably stellar - this is Deepika Padukone’s show. The actor shows terrific control over her craft and disappears into the character. From the horror of seeing a face she doesn’t identify to its gradual acceptance, Malti is reborn in the film and Padukone treats her with tenderness and affection, transferring the warmth from the screen to the viewer.
Because ultimately, Chhapaak is about reclaiming identities and fighting the good fight. This is also a film deeply invested in exploring the psyche of a woman with a charred face and its psychologically debilitating effects. The film’s emphasis on the number of surgeries and the intricacies of facial reconstruction is vital to the film’s plot: it’s a constant reminder of how men try to erase women who don’t comply.
The screenplay does meander in the middle, pivoting to a journey that seems incoherent, before it comes back on track, but that’s a storytelling choice. Since the attack has already happened when we enter the film’s world, there’s no anticipation of the event and most of the conflict in the film is internal. In that sense, the film is languidly paced.
Barring the hastily put Arijit Singh songs which interject more than they interpret, Chhapakk is a quietly powerful social commentary, a film that never allows you to be comfortable. Because the film knows that being comfortable is being complicit in violence.
Sometimes, you really have to be on the streets.