“They have scarred my face. Not my spirit,” declares Malti, an acid attack survivor and the protagonist of Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak—a film inspired by the real-life story of Laxmi Agarwal. Chhapaak narrates the story of Malti’s struggles after she gets attacked. How she not only struggles to get justice for herself but also fights for banning the sale of acid in the country. How she becomes a champion for the rights of acid attack victims. It is also the story of those who fight alongside her against grave injustice and succeed in convincing the establishment to make the prosecutions of acid attack perpetrators easier.
But above all, Chhapaak is a film about the indomitable human spirit. To quote the late American animator and writer Monty Oum, “If you endeavor to achieve, it will happen given enough resolve. It may not be immediate, and often your greater dreams are something you will not achieve within your own lifetime. The effort you put forth to anything transcends yourself, for there is no futility even in death.” Meghna Gulzar’s film embodies the essence of Oum’s saying to a tee. For Malti, it is never a matter of winning or losing. But she knows that she cannot go down without a fight. And fight she does. It is easy to give up while facing insurmountable odds. But it’s the inexorable resolve to fight for what’s right that keeps one going.
Meghna Gulzar earlier demonstrated in Raazi (as well as in Talvar) that she is really in control while dealing with multifaceted characters, both masculine and feminine. In fact, we hardly ever come across any cardboard characters in her world. Now, in a lot of films, particularly directed by male directors, we notice that the female characters lack the agency to make their own choices. But, the women in Meghna Gulzar's films don’t just have the agency but they also have the courage to choose what's right for them. In Raazi, Sehmat chooses to carry on with her dangerous mission. In Chhapaak, it's against Malti's choice and decision to not accept the compensation offered by her assailant. She says, “It would mean that I have forgiven him.” Doesn't she need the money? Of course, she does. But she understands it well that the fight isn't just about her. It's a fight against all those who consider women weak and think they can get away despite committing heinous crimes against women.
What elevates Chhapaak above other social dramas is its humanistic approach towards it subject. The film never tries to judge Malti. By humanizing her character the film succeeds in countering the view that leads to the othering of such characters. Chhapaak makes us realize that Malti is one of us. Just because an acid attack has scarred her face it doesn’t mean that she is any different from the rest of us. Meghna Gulzar’s subtle yet powerful socio-political commentary never lets the film get preachy. Yes, the film has an important message to tell but it does so organically.
Speaking of acting chops, Chhapaak features a bunch of memorable performances. Deepika Padukone delivers the best performance of her career so far. It’s expressive yet deeply nuanced. Since the dialogues are used sparingly, she mostly lets her eyes do the talking. Vikrant Massey yet again proves to be the real scene-stealer here. The scenes between him and Deepika are pure gold. Vikrant has really come a long way since his early television days and Chhapaak is just the kind of break he needed following his acting success on the web. Madhurjeet Sarghi gives a memorable performance as the female lawyer representing Malti in the court. Chhapaak is a formidable film about an important subject that's told with a lot of warmth. Hindi cinema has come of age in a big way. Hope this is just the beginning.