I was in 12th standard when one fine day, during a chemistry lab session, an ass of a classmate was busy heating concentrated sulphuric acid in a test-tube. One of the perks of studying in a semi-government college was that there was always a dearth of test-tube holders. So he ended up holding the tube, using paper made holders, which was basically a paper torn from the notebook and folded to work as a holder. Coming back to sulphuric acid, it heated up quickly and the tube burst, with traces of the acid splattering across the table. My lab notebook aka the lab record book was on the table with its pages open. In no time, to my horror, I saw the pages turning black and eventually into tattered pieces. Paper is made of cellulose so when it reacts with the acid, it leaves a black mass of carbon.

The notebook was gone, destroyed beyond recognition.

Close your eyes, and imagine a face, splashed with a handful of concentrated acid. Imagine the flesh turning into a lump, with the skin peeling off from it. Imagine a seething pain, as if the whole existence of the human soul is burning, from the raging fires from hell. Imagine the pain of the person going through with it. Now, imagine it’s you.

Inspired from the real-life incident of Laxmi Agarwal, ‘Chhapaak’ is the story of an acid attack victim Malti, who goes through a harrowing time, while fighting against the system, to ban the sale of acid. The titular role of Malti is played by Deepika Padukone, who also has co-produced the film. Ably supported by Vikrant Massey, Madhurjit Sarghi, Geeta Agarwal and Payal Nair, Deepika Padukone rises to the challenging role of Malti. Behind layers of prosthetics, she etches the trauma of a woman who keeps losing her identity, piece by piece. You don’t miss the pretty face of Ms Padukone, because the actor Deepika steals the show. Vikrant Massey, who plays an angry journalist turned NGO worker, who becomes a pillar of strength in Malti’s fight, is an actor par excellence. His craft speaks on his behalf.  

Director Meghna Gulzar, after her nerve-racking ‘Talvar’ and the tense spy tale ‘Raazi’, chooses a story that speaks of the harrowing pain that victims, especially women go through when they’re subjected to an acid attack. She skillfully shifts the timeline between Malti’s past and present, giving the viewers a glimpse of Malti’s life. The film makes the viewer uncomfortable, it makes the audience choke with emotion, as it forces them to walk in Malti’s shoes. Credit must go to Meghna and her co-writer Atika Chohan for having written such a powerful script. Towards the second half of the film, it begins to lose steam, only to throttle back in top gear, as we finally witness the events that perpetually altered Malti’s life. At a runtime of two hours and three minutes, the film is razor-sharp, thanks to the editing chops of Mr Nitin Baid. Music by Shankar Ehsaan Loy is soulful, especially the rendition of the title song ‘Chhapaak’ by Arjit Singh whose voice haunts you, as he sings ‘Chhapaak Se Pehchaan Le Gaya’. Written by the maestro Gulzar, these lines, roughly translated to ‘Destroying the identity with a mere splash’ guts you in the stomach. Gulzar, after all, is still Gulzar!

‘Chhapaak’ is a searing tale of the pain of an acid victim. It’s also a story of courage, hope and the never die attitude of brave women, who fight against oppression and patriarchy to claim their victory. But more than anything, it’s an angry film, reminding the viewers again and again, that nothing really has changed in this country. As you get ready to leave the theatre, having seen a happy ending, a Chhapaak, a sound of splash happens on screen, with three women screaming, with their hands on their faces.

Nothing-Has-Changed. Period.

 

The Cinemawala Rating: 3.5/5

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