When Abhishek Verma read about an acid attack on a Mumbai nursing student, Preeti Rathi, last year, he wanted to reach out and help her. A month-and-a-half later, Rathi died from her injuries but Verma was determined to keep her memory alive. He contacted her family and they told him how Rathi, unable to talk due to the acid burns, would communicate through sketches and scribbles. The horrified design student at IIT Bombay began to read up on acid attacks in India.
The result is a five-minute-eight-second animation film titled Chasni (Sugar Syrup) that documents the plight of an acid attack survivor as she battles isolation, social stigma and pain from her wounds. Chasni has travelled to 11 film festivals in India and abroad, recently won an award for the Best Short Animation Film at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne and was nominated for an award at the Animafest, Zagreb, Croatia, in June. It will be shown at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival in Kerala in July.
“One of the people I contacted was Lakshmi, an acid attack survivor and activist, to learn about such cases across the country,” says Verma. He adds that animation was not the difficult part as he is familiar with its techniques. It was forming the narrative and developing a story that proved to be a challenge for him. He sought the help of his tutor and mentor Shilpa Ranade, best known for her animation film Goopi Gawaiyaa Bagha Bajaiyaa, which was screened at the 18th International Children’s Film Festival of India, Hyderabad, last year.
“Initially, I had a simple linear narrative in which society is shown abusing the victims and nobody helps them. It was very literal. As I fine-tuned my content after speaking to survivors, I realised that I should avoid depicting the violence and focus on survivors’ daily life, fears and anxieties instead,” says the 26-year-old, who has used traditional 2D storytelling for this movie.
The film comprises a series of sketches in black pencil. It opens with a sequence showing an acid attack survivor, who is never named, dressed in a white sari and making a cup of tea. But she runs out of tea leaves and proceeds to boil the water with only a spoon of sugar. When she steps out of the house, her neighbours shut their doors and windows, stare at her curiously and talk in hushed tones. Facing society’s stigma, she is unable to sleep at night and idles her days indoors. At every opportunity, the film throws up questions on the survivor’s behalf: “What was my fault?” and “What did I do to deserve this?”
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Without offering any answers or explanations, the film presents a mirror and asks society to introspect. The black powder left over in the tea container becomes a metaphor for the darkness in the victim’s life. The title, he says, “is symbolic of her drinking boiled sugar as she is unable to buy a tea packet”. The images are accompanied by Hindi poetry written by Verma.
Verma manually drew 12 sketches for every second, which took two-and-half months to complete. “I was careful that the film did not offend the acid attack survivors. I showed it to Lakshmi and her husband, and they liked it,” says Verma. He is now working on his next animation film, a fictional exploration into the life of a homosexual couple.