Director: Meghna Gulzar
Cast: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey
Chhapaak is a humane retelling of a story of an acid attack survivor. It depicts the most ordinary realities of life through a kind of sensitivity that perhaps, not to generalize, only a woman director could bring to the table.
Deepika Padukone is all strength and plays her character with a kind of simplicity that comes with a certain age. She portrays the role of a 19-year-old girl called Malti. She bears a kind of innocence and spark, that despite being corrupted by the brutal realities of an acid attack, does not leave her and give her character a strength that is absent from another champion of acid attack in the film, Vikrant Massey.
Vikrant, on the other hand, is a brooding, young angry man of a modern generation. He fights for the righteous cause with sheer self-belief in the wrongdoing of the act. His character is better explored in the second-half and the small romantic encounters between Vikrant and Deepika lighten the subtext of a very loaded film.
And, yet, Meghna Gulzar deserves a mention for not treating her material with brash loudness and anger that could come as a sense of entitlement to bring the wronged.
The film’s opening sequence is long and takes time to establish its narrative through the show and tell with a perfect blend of music to compliment the film.
Chhapaak is a film that plays out at the pace of its characters. Until Deepika, as Malti, does not settle into her new reality of life (post the attack), it’s almost like the film also takes time to adjust to its subject. The screenplay becomes smoother once the effect is established. And, the closing to an interval makes the impact even more imminent.
It is an effort worth praise that Meghna Gulzar has a knack for showing the unspeakable, the subtle, yet real and complex ordinariness of the everyday life that it hits hard to make its effect felt. Small instances like the unmasking of Deepika as she gains confidence during the interval is a classic example.
Meghna’s deftness in dealing with a material of this kind further in the second half of the film, which sees a romantic angle play out with the utmost simplicity of incidents like papers flying and lovers assembling them etc., before another serious reality is dealt with is laudable.
To not make it look all gloomy and hard, this particular part, though amply sprinkled with some brutal facts, lightens the mood and tonality of the film to give in a breath of fresh air.
There are certain sub-texts explored and layers that peel open as subtly as the film comes to an end, and closure of a kind is lent to Malti’s story. But, the reality of acid sale and attacks is further shown to make a political statement on the day and age of Indian state and the film closes on a note to suggest that fight against the acid mentality shall continue.
Popular notions of beauty and certain class and gender stereotypes are addressed in the film, not with a sense of judgment but observations. Despite the filmmaker’s attempt to not insert herself overarchingly into the film, her empathetic portrayal speaks volumes.
The dialogues, design, and music of Chhapaak all further the narrative of the film. The background score is used to dramatize situations of a certain kind, but suit the text just fine.
There is a sharpness in the screenplay that comes across in the way the film has been edited. But, certain parts that were repeated in the first and the second half did not feel overdone, for they explained the gravity of the attacks that change a woman’s life forever.
To conclude, Meghna Gulzar’s honest attempt to convey a story strengthened by the performances of its actors is an important movement in the genre of socially realist cinema that has seen a kind of contemporary revival in the film industry. The only crucial difference being that this time, this movement in cinema is not being heralded by the ones on the outlines, but by the mainstream actors of Bollywood.