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, speaking 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 saves the movie, also, from becoming a preaching, is the firmly grounded air it can have causing mongering for the poor girls. The ruined images of Acid are not lovely: Malti cries the first day she is out of the hospital when she sees herself in the mirror. You and I would, you and I would. We are unflinchingly shown that face up front. It takes some courage and Padukone shows that she is confident, luckily, without any screen. And that’s what makes up a few tumbling moves, including the needless songs: I suppose a studio movie without every album still is a long way off.
An fascinating cast is given to Padukone. Massey, who, we know, is going to develop a soft corner for Malti, is pleasing as a thorny, anxious NGO, even though it seems a bit exaggerated to snap off its hands. The actor who plays her compassionate lawyer is always helpful. The other men on Team Malti are likewise, in particular a figure named Shiraz, a rich female who doubles as guardian angels. It is also appropriate to give minimum space to the part of the perpetrator. The background is not important, the girl and her ardent survival battle are important.