Chhapak tells the story of Malti, an acid attack survivor herself, breaking away from the shackles of depression and shame and joining hands with a social worker, Amol in running an NGO that works for the acid attack victims. Meghna Gulzar conducts a heartwarming marriage of senstivity and sturdiness in the deeply moving film, about an Acid attack survivor, Chhapaak. In a film based on a specific incident, the execution of that incident becomes essential. In the able hands of Meghna Gulzar and Deepika Padukone, the scene in which Malti, Deepika’s character is attacked by the perpetrators is handled with cinematic aplomb and sincere emotional resonance.
Meghna’s minimalist approach in telling a story that is heavy on emotion and anger helps her in maintaining a groundedness to the proceedings. The agony and anger of the character do not burst out on the screen, except for the instance of sheer horror during the attack itself. The film does not start from Malthi being a beautiful, happy girl. Meghna chooses a non-linear narrative. We are introduced to a Malthi who has found her feet after the horror incident and is now in search of a job. In a beautiful transition scene, as Deepika is sitting in the house of a victim, her mother telling the girl’s horror story, the camera stays on Deepika’s face for a few good seconds and cuts straight to the day of the incident. Malthi falls to the ground, screaming in horror, the bystanders looking at her cluelessly and as the burning pain transcends the screen and starts affecting the audience, Arijit’s poignant voice kicks in and your heart sinks and the hair stand in sheer intrigue.
The possibility of a story’s soul taking a fascinating affect when directed/written by a woman is realized here. Being two different genders, it is natural that a woman’s vision of a story would differ to that of a man. Chhapak is a classic example of that fascinating difference. There is an unmistakable feminine charm in the way the film looks, feels and sounds. Meghna Gulzar excudes a reassuring quiet in the way she presents herself and the same is reflected in her films, significantly more in Raazi and Chhapak as she worked as a writer on both these films. When a film absorbs a personality trait of its director, the sincerity of the film cannot be compromised as this merge of the director’s vision and her personality can only happen when the intent to tell a story comes from a place within their heart.
The lack of drama in the scene of Malti being attacked, shakes you up from within as you are left right in that agonizing moment with Malti’s clueless screaming, tearing your soul apart. The scene in which Malti looks at her reconstructed face in the mirror, is handled brilliantly. The simplicity of the direction comes through in a handful of scenes which is when the film archives its fullest potential. It is in between these inspired storytelling moments that the film falters and struggles to keep you engaged, emotionally. Meghna does not limit her focus to Malti’s story. Her script keeps meandering to other victims and the economic dyreness of their home and her brother’s illness. The writing never fleshes out Malti as a character nor does it allow us to imagine her as someone who was, once, ambitious and happy. Instead, in a move that can only be described as cinematic lethargy, we are shown a beautiful Deepika Padukone trying to be a school girl who is happy and fantasizes about becoming an Indian Idol contestant. These moments are put in the film as mere fillers and not properly written scenes.
The character of an NGO owner played beautifully by the excellent Vikranth Massey is also not given enough to dig deep into. He is a driven individual, who had left his job as a journalist to serve acid attack victims through an NGO that struggles to find funds. In a wonderful moment, he refuses to be happy about an amendment being made to the law in favour of acid attack victims and Malti says ” Acid mujhpe phika hai, aap pe nahi “. In a role that can be described as an angry activist who is driven to help people, Vikranth Massey, miraculously, adds depth to this weakly etched character. There are sparks of life between Malti and Amol which humanize these two strong people and breathes a charming earnestness into the film. The costume department needs to be complimented for coming up with authentic looking kurtas and shirts for Amol’s character and not turning him into a cartoon version of an activist whcih we usually see in Hindi cinema. Then there is his extraordinary performance that adds to the authenticity of the role.
Deepika Padukone backed the film, both as an actor and a producer. Her performance and presentation of herself is devoid of any vanity. The performance could be described as a generous. While on screen, she allows the scene to breathe and not impose the agonizing weight of the character on the moment that is being created. This astounding achievement is a collaboration of the directors ability to extract a performance that hits a very specific meter and the actor’s ability to recognize the meter and hit it to perfection. The skillfully done prosthetics do not limit the performer in Deepika. The smile she has cracked for this character is, for me, her greatest achievement as an actor. To smile in a way, in those prosthetics, that makes you aware of the pain and the playfulness of a bruised soul, is exceptionally difficult.
There are scenes you watch through teary eyes and there are scenes which leave you completely untouched. This inconsistent effect it has on you, results in it limiting itself to a good film that does not penetrate with the emotional depth it ideally could have. Chhapak’s greatest victory lies in the fact that Meghna does not victimize Malti. In one of the many brilliant moments involving Deepika and Vikranth, Amol responds to a complaining Malti ” Ab Chalo, train me baithke tumhe sahaanubhooti dikhaaunga “. The writers dismiss any chance of the audience feeling sorry for Malti’s life, the endeavour is to be inspired by her and Meghna and Deepika make it a point that sympathy does not seep through into this tale of sensitive, yet sensational human resolve.