MUMBAI — Sensitive topics (and few can be as sensitive as acid attacks that irreversibly damage a woman both physically and psychologically) need expert handling for a film to work. Though the two meanings are usually synonymous, what we mean here by “work” is not commercial success but a connect to the viewer’s heart and soul. When the story is also real (albeit necessarily dramatized), this becomes more vital.
In short, a film like this should corrode your heart and soul into feeling deeply for the victims, if only as a viewer. It should scar you and leave a deep impact and takeaway, if not motivate a section of the audience to spur the legal and governmental changes needed in the laws and their implementation.
Sadly, “Chhapaak” does not even come close to this level.
Seemingly at a tangent, we must mention that our two top names, Priyanka Chopra (now) Jonas and Deepika Padukone, both had parallel tracks vis-a-vis their international cinematic forays and turning producers of a Hindi film. This after co-starring in “Bajirao Mastani” (wherein Chopra decimated Padukone in the scenes and song together, and overall with a terrific performance).
What is more important is that both Chopra (she is the offspring of two doctors) and Padukone turned Hindi film producers with films based on real-life stories about (in essence) human beings who should have been devastated but fought back with sheer spirit. And, in such films, the b-o. can be irrrelevant.
But here’s the key difference: Shonali Bose’s film, “The Sky Is Pink” largely connected despite some needless length, and Chopra was magnificent as the mother of the victim. Here, the film largely leaves you cold, and Padukone is strictly average, but for her scenes as a college girl, in which she is not just excellent but perfect.
The biopic based on Laxmi Agarwal’s story follows the usual pattern of changing key characters’ names, but this time, director-co-writer Meghna Gulzar does not reach even the limited levels of “Talvar,” her first biopic, forget the zinger that her last film “Raazi” was. Her writing is inconsistent and erratic, and that stems from a deep confusion.
Gulzar is not sure if she wants to focus on Malti (Laxmi’s screen counterpart, played by Padukone)’s spirit, her tragedy as it affects Malti’s star-crossed family (with a brother falling gravely ill and an alcoholic father), the legal issues, the demand for control or regulation of acid as an over-the-counter product, or the media coverage of all this.
The social angle is also quarter-baked—it is mentioned that acid attack victims are women “jo padhna chahati hai ya badhna chahti hai (who want to get educated and go up in life), but the reason for the attack on Malti is simply insane jealousy as she does not reciprocate her family friend’s romantic overtures.
The case drags on for years and years, as the verdict is challenged by the defendant Basheer Khan a.k.a. Babbu (Vishal Pandya, excellent in his controlled performance showing his unapologetic demeanor) and he also gets frequent bail. The subtle demand here for keeping laws stringent for acid attackers does not come across graphically enough to make us cringe and seethe.
Alongside, Malti develops a soft corner for NGO worker Amol (Vikrant Massey), who soon begins to reciprocate her love. This part is half-baked and not shown very convincingly.
We liked certain touches: the scene where Malti sees her first reflection in a mirror, the panel of judges rapping government officials for the red tape in regulating the sale of acid, the amusing rickshaw sequence where the driver, despite being a local, prefers the trems “left” and “right” to the Hindi words “baayein” and “daayein” and the sweet terrace scene between father and daughter.
But the film has no climax to speak of. Instead of slides showing how Laxmi’s life has progressed since, we have acid attack statistics alone. The defeatist fact that acid is still freely available is also stressed, and the last sequence is meant to shock but ends up as a clumsy and ill-conceived attempt at sensationalism, almost as if the director had an afterthought that the story she as handling as quite dry, and needed an artificial boost with another unrelated incident!
Technically competent, the film has one remarkable song, “Chhapaak Se Pehchan Le Gaya” that is well-written (Gulzar) and composed (Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy). From the performances, Babbu’s sister is superb, especially in the dogged defiance she shows in court, and we wish we knew the name of this actress, and Manohar Teli as Malti’s father is quite lovable in his helplessness. Massey is good, and so is the lawyer (Madhurjeet Sargi).
But the film does not really make the impact the serious and topical theme deserved.
Produced by: Deepika Padukone, Meghna Gulzar & Govind Singh Sandhu
Directed by: Meghna Gulzar
Written by: Meghna Gulzar& Atika Chohan
Starring: Deepika Padukone, Vikrant Massey, Vishal Dahiya, Madhurjeet Sargi,
Delzad Hiwale, Vaibhavi Upadhyay, Manohar Teli, Payal Nair, Chittaranjan Tripathy, Geeta Agarwal, Ankit Bisht & others