In Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar-winning 2012 documentary short, Saving Face, a Pakistani acid attack survivor returns to the room where her life was destroyed. She indicates the door that her husband locked shut as she writhed in pain. “Whenever I’m here I remember the day I was burnt," she says. Obaid-Chinoy then cuts to the husband, grinning uncertainly, saying he never threw acid but that she spilled oil on herself.
Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak also returns to the scene of the crime, and because it’s a feature film, we also see the gruesome act and its aftermath. Yet, there's nothing in it quite as disturbing as the smiling man in Saving Face. The film is an earnest and urgent look at the horror that is acid violence. The issue looms over the film, which does well by the subject without transcending it.
Chhapaak begins in 2012, seven years after acid is thrown on Malti (Deepika Padukone) by a jealous acquaintance named Babbu. A journalist covering another attack – the Delhi rape that sparked protests across the country – finds out about her and, after a cursory interview, puts her in touch with a grumpy activist, Amol (Vikrant Massey), who works with acid attack survivors. Malti is in and out of court, fighting the case against Babbu and filing a PIL to see the open sale of acid banned. After seven reconstructive surgeries – possible only because her father’s employer pays for them – her face is less scarred than most of the other volunteers at Amol’s organization, something the film alludes to quietly in one scene.
Gulzar’s last two films, the true-crime story Talvar and spy thriller Raazi, operated in a fascinating grey zone. Chhapaak is more black-and-white in its moral landscape, but you can feel the pull of the thriller grip Gulzar for a spell, as the film turns the arrest of Babbu into a taut 20 minutes (there’s smart use of what seems like the usual police insensitivity as a red herring). The rest of the film doesn’t have the same urgency, but it’s still populated by recognizable Gulzar character types: Irrfan Khan’s dry, determined striver from Talvar paralleled by Malti’s lawyer (the excellent Madhurjeet Sarghi), Jaideep Ahlawat’s brusque mentor from Raazi replaced by Amol. Amol is such a killjoy that he inspires the film’s best line, when Malti tells him: “You act as if acid has been thrown on you. But it’s been thrown on me. And I want to party."
Screenwriters Gulzar and Atika Chohan juggle the chronology of Malti’s story (based on the real-life case of Laxmi Agarwal): we first see her years after the attack, then enduring its aftermath, and then through her many years of legal struggle. But we’re only shown the pre-attack Malti towards the end of the film. I can see why they'd do this: the audience till now has been denied the Deepika they know, because to start the film with the character unscarred would be to place in the viewer's mind the idea of Padukone playing Malti. Yet, beyond a smart callback to Kal Ho Na Ho, the film doesn't earn this extended flashback. There's nothing from these scenes that adds to the Malti or Babbu we already know. Considering we've already seen the attack play out earlier, this passage comes close to an attempt to milk sympathy.
There are some sharp ideas in Chhapaak. Malti’s lawyer telling her to be ready for a long fight is followed by a cut to the lawyer’s daughter, several years older than when we last saw her. Other battles come and go on the edges on the narrative: women’s safety in general, the apathy of the state, the ease with which eggs can be banned but acid can’t. Padukone's quiet portrayal of Malti’s determination is moving, but I missed the poetic flourishes of Talvar and Raazi, and the little cameos that enlivened those films. Though Malati’s surgeon, her parents and brother, and her former boyfriend are each given the contours of a character, none register vividly. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s music leans on the viewer in a way the film doesn’t – the harsh title track doesn’t warrant being played four or five times.
Chhapaak opens with the sound of a crowd chanting “We want justice". A few minutes in, young protesters are being lathi-charged by the cops, something we’ve seen a lot of in the last month. A few days ago, Padukone stood quietly with the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University who'd been attacked by masked goons, an unexpected – and seemingly unpremeditated – act of solidarity. The film is careful to keep its central character in focus and its star and producer under wraps, but it’s impossible not to think of Padukone in the moment when Malti is asked “ladna hai?" – up for a fight?