Chhapaak begins with an all too familiar sight: Of angry protesters taking to the streets. The film begins in December 2016, after the brutal gangrape and murder of a physiotherapy student in New Delhi leading to nationwide outrage. As the police brings out the water cannons, and the laathis are let loose to drown out the slogans for justice, a father walks in front of a TV news channel’s camera, holding up a photo. He says nothing, just stands, hoping they’ll notice another ‘India’s daughter’ looking for justice. The reporter eventually does, but only to tell him that this beti’s story cannot be covered at the moment.
In walks Amol (Vikrant Massey), delivering a line that perhaps needed a bigger pause: “Rape takes precedence over acid attacks.” As he leaves the protests a few seconds later, the conductor of the bus he gets on, tells him with nonchalance, ‘if the gangrape victim dies, the government will fall’. A disgruntled Amol shoots back with, “Kyun bhai, jo baach jaati hain, unki kya galti hai?” (What’s the fault of the victims who survive?)
Indeed. A concise summary of a society that laments the loss of women and makes up hashtags about their bravery, but only if they die. Produced by Deepika Padukone and directed by Meghna Gulzar, Chhapaak is the story of the struggle, and the trauma, of simply surviving in such a hostile world.
The film is based on the real-life journey of Laxmi Agarwal, who at age 15, was attacked by 32-year-old Nadeem Khan, and his brother’s partner, after she turned down his offer of marriage. The screenplay, co-written by Gulzar and Atika Chohan, does not focus solely on Laxmi’s attack, but pans its lens to the shocking frequency of such attacks; on how not only is acid cheap and easily available, but also how till a few years ago, the punishment for throwing acid and ‘throwing hot tea’, would have both come under the same section of the Indian Penal Code.
But perhaps most importantly, it uses the protagonist’s (Deepika Padukone) story to draw attention to how predators carry on, playing hide and seek with the law, while their victims get little help and no respite as they pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Sentenced to being relegated to the shadows, and being shunned by ‘polite’ society, for a crime someone else committed. Where’s the justice in that?
Deepika Padukone as the young, starry-eyed Malti, who goes through the motions of coming to terms with her reality and then tackling it head on, resolved to fight both for herself, and for other acid attack victims, has, frankly, never been more endearing. Her portrayal of Laxmi’s mannerisms are so spot on, not even the great critics of Twitter would be able to accuse her of not doing her homework, or of being insincere.
Vikrant Massey does an excellent job of playing the well-intentioned, but prickly and sanctimonious social worker who needs to be redirected to his lane time and again. Madhurjeet Sarghi as Malti’s lawyer is restrained, but memorable.
Chhapaak isn’t a perfect film by any means, and tries to club in too much into its 123-minute run-time. But it is still a remarkably astute indictment of a society preoccupied with outer beauty, when its own back is turned firmly to the mirror.