This film does a good job in bringing to our attention this horrific, painful ‘punishment’ women suffer because they deleted a marriage proposal from someone whose attention they did not seek.
First, a confession: I thought this film would be rather exploitative. Thankfully it is not. Director Meghna Gulzar manages to deal with the sensitive subject in such a restrained manner that you are awestruck.
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I’m not saying the director manages a miracle, but I’m glad there is no horrendous melodrama or an extended pity party which often results in a fundraising soiree in some fancy hotel for ladies who lunch.
With that in my head, I was going to pass the chance to review the film. Then I saw the vitriol on social media. Flung on the film and its maker -- Actor Deepika Padukone’s first film as producer - just because she expressed her right as a citizen her solidarity with students at JNU. Instead of visiting some holy shrine carrying the print of the film on her head, accompanied by the PR machinery (which is the ‘done thing’ in Bollywood) she stood like others, in support, as a common citizenry. The same paparazzi and social media pundits who criticised cricketers and other influencers for not speaking up, were now happy to question her presence. Hashtags to ‘boycott’ the film were created. It made me want to step up and watch the film.
The film is a fictionalised account of an acid attack victim Laxmi Agarwal and her struggle for justice -- not only to make sure the perpetrator was incarcerated but also for other victims.
Malti Agarwal (a role reprised by Deepika Padukone) has acid thrown on her because she rebuffs the advances of Guddu who is a friend of the family. Even though this happens in broad daylight in the middle of a market, just one person runs to help her. She is 19 years old and is unable to finish school because she suffers not just disfiguration of the body, but her spirit is broken too. Her family is poor and live in the servant quarters of a generous Shiraz Aunty, who not only bears the expenses of reconstructive surgery for Malti, but gets legal help so that Malti can get justice. The parents, the lawyers, the doctors and even the policemen all form concentric circles around Malti, which means the film is not just Malti centric. The director manages to create a great ensemble to push the narrative. Even the bad guys - Guddu, his sister, his mother, his lawyer, neighbours who laugh at Malti’s disfigurement -- they all feel real. The audience is shocked at how acid corrodes away at Malti’s happy face and hands and body and yet when she wants to wear ear-rings you empathise with her. She’s 20 years old!
The second half of the film which involves her rehabilitation, her work with an NGO called Chaanv (just as the real life Laxmi did), and her romantic interest in the man who runs the NGO (played by Vikrant Massey), the court case and her public interest litigation to ban sale of acid across the country tends to meander. You want to fast forward some parts but feel guilty for losing interest in the story. The humour suddenly feels forced in places, but when she does get justice, it made me happy. The milk of human kindness isn’t dried up inside me as I had suspected.
Having watched the story of young Fakhra Younus from Pakistan in an Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face (it is available on YouTube), and having read news reports about Naomi, a young girl who suffered severe acid burns in London, and subsequently watched the BBC document her case (also on YouTube), I realised what the lady from CSAAAW (Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women) in the Indian documentary Scarred was saying, ‘It is a new form of gender-based violence.’
When you hear the husband who threw acid on his own wife because she was talking about divorcing him, as to how she is now ‘his’ and will not be able to survive outside the support he provides for her, you will be chilled to the bone. And the patriarchy is so deep rooted, the courts did not punish him because he’s being ‘responsible’ and taking care of his wife. The frustration I felt when watching the documentary is echoed by one woman scarred by acid when she says that ‘they’ (the society and the judiciary) always speak of a woman’s ‘sheel’ (purity or honour) to justify these attacks. How come no one raises an eyebrow when men are allowed to discard wives and play the field. What kind of society is it that punishes women for life and the men get only seven years in jail, if at all…
Of course in Chhapaak the film we see the frustrating struggle Malti has to deal with when she should be taking care of her daily bread and you empathise with her mother who says that these court cases are meant for the rich. It’s true. Many of us have seen the never-ending struggle to get justice for ourselves and then give up because there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The film ends on a chilling note, reminding us that acid is still being used as an easy weapon to hurt young women across India (the last recorded acid attack was as recent as December 7, 2019 in Muzaffarnagar, UP), even though the rules have been tightened for sale of corrosive substances. Even though the supreme court offers better compensation to victims (as much as the medical expenses) as of today, it does not cover any cost of rehabilitation both psychological and physical.
This film does a good job in bringing to our attention this horrific, painful ‘punishment’ women suffer because they deleted a marriage proposal from someone whose attention they did not seek. Or because they were going to complain about having been raped by upper-caste men…
Chhapaak isn’t a film you watch with a tub of popcorn and a soda. But you should watch it because unknown assailants spewed vitriol on a woman because she stood up for something.
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.
Read her columns here.
First Published: Jan 9, 2020 12:35 PM IST