Splash Of Courage:
Rating: Three stars
There have been films made before Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak, on the unimaginably horrific crime of acid attacks on women, notably the Oscar-winning documentary, Saving Face (2012) by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge; Sarah Thomas’s short film Scarred (2014), Sacha Polak’s Dirty God (2019) and Manu Asokan’s Uyare (2019).
Still, in vanity-obsessed times, it takes courage for a star like Deepika Padukone to produce and act (with utter sincerity) in a film in which through most of its running time her face is disfigured. There can be no conventional happy ending for a story of an acid attack survivor—the skin can never be ‘normal’, the memory of the pain and terror can never be erased.
Malti Agarwal (Padukone)—based on a real character, Laxmi—is a heroine, because she fights for her own dignity and rehabilitation, and takes on an apathetic system that allows the unregulated sale of acid, and marginalises the victim, while the perpetrator – a spurned suitor (Vishal Dahiya)–gets away with a little more than a slap on the wrist. Along with Malti, a warrior for justice is her lawyer Archana Bajaj (Madhurjeet Sarghi–excellent), who is cynical enough to know how hopeless the battle is, but it willing to commit to it for as long as it takes. The public interest litigation (PIL) for the regulated sale of acid was a crucial one, and demanded a lot of patience as every other legal issue in the country.
In a sense, Amol (Vikrant Massey–effective) the head of the NGO Chhaya that works for acid attack survivors is an extraneous character, meant to be a glum contrast to Malti’s optimism, and serves as her romantic interest. One never gets to know who he is, and why he is involved in this work that pays very little, if at all.
There are timeline jumps in the script and some potentially dramatic subplots glossed over—like the brother’s resentment over all the family’s resources being spent on the sister; then he gets a fatal illness and it is her responsibility to look after the family. Jobs are not easy to come by with her scarred face.
There are some shortcuts too, like a magical benefactress (Payal Nair) who pays for Malti’s surgeries, an avuncular doctor and a lawyer, who presumably fights the case pro bono, and Malti’s eventual—and unlikely– job as a TV anchor. Perhaps the director did not want to pile on the grimness over an already depressing subject.
It is a difficult film to watch, but important too– public opinion against this monstrous crime has to be mobilised. The cases of acid attacks have only gone up with time—the film talks about the Preeti Rathi case in Mumbai, among others. Hundreds of women continue to suffer for lack of support. The audience should be mature enough to understand that the actual horror has been considerably toned down for the screen. Even then, the eyes guiltily avert at many points, so the courage of these women has to be doubly applauded.