Chhapaak movie cast: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey, Madhurjeet Sarghi, Vaibhavi Upadhyaya, Payal Nair, Vishal Dahiya, Ankit Bisht, Geeta Agarwal, Manohar Teli, Sharvari Deshpande
Chhapaak movie director: Meghna Gulzar
Chhapaak movie rating: 3.5 stars
Chhapaak is a happy-making word, associated with splashy puddles, burbling rain songs: it is so very Gulzar. In using it for her film on an acid attack survivor, Meghna imparts it with a decided sting: I will never be able to hear it in the same way again.
The story of pretty teenager Laxmi Agarwal, whose face was ruined by acid flung by a much older spurned suitor, made headlines. What made her different from so many others was that she refused to let it ruin her life. Instead of cowering in fear and shame, something victims of any kind of violence tend to veer towards, she fought back. It was a long, hard fight, in hospitals and court-rooms, punctuated by a series of painful face-reconstructing surgeries. She refused to stay hidden, building herself back bit by bit while speaking up for herself, and others in the same circumstances.
It is that inspiring story that Meghna recreates, with some embellishments, of course, through Deepika Padukone’s Malti. If the star had played it like a vanity project, there would have been no film. But Chhapaak scores because she comes through with a solid, realised performance. It is not just putting the focus on the ravaged-skin-with a missing ear-and-nostril, but reflecting a mix of pain, anger, resignation, and finally, arriving at some kind of resolution.
What also saves the film from becoming a preachy, let’s-stand-up-for-these-poor-girls cause-mongering, which it could well have sunk into, is its determinedly grounded air. Acid ravaged faces are not pretty: when Malti sees herself in the mirror the first time after she’s back from hospital, she screams. You and I would, too. We are shown that face up- front, unflinchingly. That takes a certain kind of courage, and Padukone shows she’s up for it, without, thankfully, any showiness. And that’s what makes up for a few faltering steps, which also include the superfluous songs: I guess a studio film minus all songs is still some way off.
Padukone, who grows into her role as she goes along, is given an interesting supporting cast. Massey as the ornery, impatient NGO-type, whom we know will develop a soft corner for Malti, is pleasing, even though in some bits, him snapping her head off appears a tad exaggerated. Madhurjeet Sarghi who plays her doughty, ever-supportive lawyer Archana Bajaj, is wonderful: Anand Tiwari in a walk-on part, is spot-on, as her supportive spouse. So are the others on Team Malti, especially Shiraz aunty (Payal Nair), a wealthy woman who doubles up as guardian angel. The two other women, a lawyer (Upadhyay), and a journalist (Deshpande) both leave an impression: they are there as professionals, not just pretty faces.
It’s also apt that the perpetrator Bashir Khan aka Baboo (Vishal Dahiya) is given minimal space, almost like an afterthought. The religion of the acid-thrower is never the most important thing about him. What comes up is his attitude, shamefully universal, that women are property. The focus of the film stays firmly on Malti, and her spirited struggle for survival.
The inclusion of a bunch of acid survivors, all fighting their ‘cases’, make it even more real, even if Malti remains the best-looking survivor of them all. If I have a quibble, it’s this: in a toss-up to keep things believable, but just enough so that your audience doesn’t avert its eyes in revulsion, you have to keep your leading lady more visible than the others.
But so present is Padukone right through, owning a couple of terrific, moving moments, in which we see what’s she’s feeling only through her eyes, that you quash that thought. Her Malti embodies the film’s anti-patriarchy stance, minus shrillness or preachiness. This is drama without dreaded melodrama.
You look at Padukone, so far away from the dressed-up, made-up parts she’s done till now, and acknowledge an actor who wants to break out of her safe zone, to actually inhabit someone else’s skin even if it’s burnt. Yes, it’s worthy, but it’s also very watchable.