‘Chhapaak’ review: Burns Right Through

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

The human skin is essentially a top hydrocarbon layer of dead cells. In touch with acid, the dead cells begin to give away. The acid then eats right through them to begin burning and exposing flesh. More time and quantity, and there’s organ damage and even death. Facial skin is sensitive and not as thick as that on human hands. That’s the terrifying irony of acid attacks that are on a frightening  rise in India. The inhuman hands that carry them and then fling them onto a face are burnt too, but with precaution can minimize damage to themselves. At the receiving end of this horrifying crime are the faces that never recover. Nature never preempted just how venal and unimaginably grotesque the patriarchal mind would turn.

Director Meghna Gulzar (co-writing with Atika Chohan) spotlights the real-life story of acid attack survivor Laxmi Aggarwal in Chhapaak (Splash), her most discomfiting and raw effort till date. And it’s not just because of the visual impact that this crime renders itself to. She makes you part of her empathetic journey, so you cringe not at what you see but what the victims go through. The pain and suffering never stops. And with that comes the horrid intent of this crime: the ripping away off the identity that all of us have, that face that is our own, that we identify ourselves with, that face that’s our recognition pattern for others, that displays our emotions, our stories as we age, as we face life day in and out. It’s the image that our loved ones look out for. Our face is us. We are our face. And then, one day, like hundreds of women every year in India, Malti (Deepika Padukone) has her life upended brutally. Chhapaak narrates her story in the form of a quasi-investigational thriller in the second act. But it is the first act that sets her character up as a semi-mythical presence, with activist Amol (Vikrant Massey) gate-crashing a protest rally in the demonic Nirbhaya rape case, for in his cynical mind, rape victims get all the public and media support versus the unspoken acid attack survivors.

Vikrant Massey is all cynical and human.

Director Gulzar intertwines Amol’s arc with Malti’s via the latter’s manic focus on landing a job—and not getting one because of her disfigured face. Malti begins working with Amol even as she’s pursuing the investigation and eventual court attendance of her own case. With her is her strong ally, lawyer Archana Bajaj (Madhurjeet Sarghi in a powerfully supportive act) who ensures that she files a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to ban the sale of acid in India. There’s telling political commentary in those scenes, as there’s a social lens outside the courtroom—Malti has a strong support system in her father’s employers even as all of this begins to take a toll on her family life; plus, there’s the attacker and his proximity to the family (Vishal Dahiya is superb as Basheer Shaikh). On the gratifying flip side, Bajaj can handle all of this high pressure thanks to a quietly reassuring husband (Anand Tiwari in a likeable cameo), who just as easily hands her the car keys as she rushes out of their home party just as he can handle their teenage daughter with a firm gesture.

Deepika Padukone turns in a stirring performance.

Amol’s cynicism meanwhile is countered by Malti’s courage, impish optimism, and heartrending hope. If he gets annoyed by a partying session at his office, she defiantly picks up her aerated drink and tells him that she’s the victim here, not him. And she wants to party. That’s the director’s way of telling him and us: the victim has her identity and needs intact. Nothing, absolutely nothing ought to come in their way. It’s only later that Gulzar flashbacks to Malti’s attack  , and when you see the before-the-attack Malti you truly and completely realize the physical and mental devastation that it must have caused her, because seeing her pre-attack breaks you too. It’s also here that Padukone’s act is slightly overdone, her childish act of shrugging her shoulders to drive the home the fact that Malti’s only 19 unnecessarily overt. But that’s nitpicking in a movie that’s uplifting without being dreary or sanctimonious. Packed with a powerful background score (Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy with Tubby Parik) that throbs with rhythm in the ominous scenes, and tinkles like a waltz in the happier ones. But it is the title song that’s a winner, searing and powerful, with evocative lyrics by Gulzar and a heartfelt rendition by Arijit Singh. The song’s a cross between Laxmikant Pyarelal‘s Koi Shehri Babu and Vishal Bharadwaj‘s Chappa Chappa: but when it plays it haunts.

Deepika Padukone and Vikrant Massey ride on.

Of the cast, Vikrant Massey delivers another winning performance. His morbid outlook doesn’t cloud his niceness, and that you can differentiate the two is because of Massey. Deepika Padukone, also producing this movie, delivers her finest yet. Beneath her prosthetics, all you can see is Malti, and not an actor or her box-office pull. Padukone is quietly powerful and inertly affecting. Those dead outer cells on the human and societal skin? She tears them away with an unforgettable mix of hope and anguish to prep you for a devastating end.

Chhapaak (2020) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

‘Chhapaak’ is rated U (Unrestricted Public Exhibition)

Director Meghna Gulzar Time 2h
Writers  Meghna Gulzar, Atika Chohan
Stars Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey, Vishal Dahiya
Genres  Biography, Drama

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