Fox Star Studios, Deepika Padukone, Govind Singh Sandhu, Meghna Gulzar
This is a docudrama based on the traumatic life events of Laxmi Agarwal. She was the victim of an acid attack in 2005, at the age of 15. She has since shown exemplary courage and perseverance in petitioning the courts to make changes to the law, in order to curb the ease with which attackers buy the acid, and then escape severe punishment for destroying lives.
Unfortunately, the star system of popular Indian cinema dilutes objectivity in watching ‘Chhapaak’. A conundrum is created by the casting of the lead character. At the start of the film, we see a tall woman called Malti, with her face and neck horrifically scarred. Empathy wells up instantly, familiar as we are with images of the terrifying damage acid can do to facial features and human personality.
Then we hear Malti speak, and the distinct and disembodied voice of movie star, Deepika Padukone, emerges like a hologram from Malti’s larynx. It appears the trick of a ventriloquist, and comes as a shock.
The dissonance between voice and face brings attention to the good job done by the make-up artist, at the same time as it distracts from the narrative style established by the script and direction; an understated and non dramatic approach, in consonance with the subject.
Ms. Padukone becomes the elephant in the room, particularly in the flashback sequences, which show her before she is scarred by the acid. In these scenes, she plays a schoolgirl. Shyly holding the hand of a boy called Rajesh (Ankit Bisht), she walks home with him from class. She is, presumably, 15 years old.
A 34 year old actress playing a girl in school is a part of the make belief world of Hindi melodrama, but stands out in sheer contrast here because the casting is in total opposition to the realistic manner of story telling in the movie. We watch this ‘child’ being accosted by a stalker, Basheer Shaikh (Vishal Dahiya), and observe his unwanted attention, until the fateful moment when acid is thrown at her face.
‘Chhapaak’ is a didactic film in intent, and conveys the sheer randomness of the horror that a woman walking down the street in India can face. The weapon used against her is a chemical formula that breaks down flesh to the bone.
All this is communicated well. But the emotional resonance, moments of poignancy, that you expect from a Meghna Gulzar film, are missing. What is left is an uneven movie. This is disappointing.