‘CHHAPAAK’ | 10 January, 2020

Fox Star Studios, Ka Productions and Mriga Films’ Chhapaak is the story of an acid attack victim.

Malti (Deepika Padukone) is a pretty, young girl who hails from a lower middle-class family. Her parents (Geeta Agrawal and Manohar Teli) work for a golden-hearted lady (Payal Nair). Malti goes to school and has a boyfriend, Sanjay (Ankit Bisht). A family acquaintance, Babbu alias Bashir Khan (Vishal Dahiya), secretly loves Malti. He loses his cool when he realises that Malti is in love with another boy. At first, Malti is unable to fathom his feelings for her because she treats him as a brother and, therefore, she even spurns his advances. But jealousy gets the better of Babbu, and so the jilted lover throws acid on Malti’s face in broad daylight, ruining Malti’s life forever.

Seven surgeries, funded by the lady in whose house Malti’s parents work, are what it takes Malti to get back on her feet and lead a dignified life. But she files a criminal case against her attacker and his sister who had helped him in the attack. Malti also files a PIL in the Supreme Court, pleading for a ban on sale of acid freely in the market. The two cases, argued on her behalf by her lawyer (Madhurjeet Sarghi), are going on simultaneously and take years to end. Meanwhile, Malti starts working in an NGO for acid attack survivors. The NGO has been started by Amol (Vikrant Massey). Does Malti get justice in court? What happens to her PIL for a ban on free sale of acid?

The story is inspired by a true-life story and is based on incidents in the life of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal. Of course, it is a fictionalised account of the real-life story, in which cinematic liberties have been taken, but it is a true account at the core. Since the story is about an acid attack victim, it is inherently a heart-rending story. The human drama has an inherent emotional connect with the audience but having said that, it has appeal more for the city-based and niche audience rather than the general mass base as it does not have several of the ingredients of a commercial potboiler. The screenplay, penned by Atika Chohan and Meghna Gulzar, should have been one which would shake the audience emotionally. However, the writer-duo has not been able to make a strong connection between the characters of the drama and the audience. Although the writers may have remained true to the real-life happenings, they have not been able to milk the emotions inherent in the story. As a result, the viewers don’t cry or sob with the acid attack victim, Malti, as also the other victims. Better scripting would’ve ensured that. Also, there are several scenes which make the viewers wonder why they had even been written. For instance, Malti’s outburst in front of Amol for more funds for the promotional campaign is unwarranted as she is well aware that there is a fund shortage in the NGO. Similarly, the viewers fail to understand why Amol chides Malti and his other team members for partying after a minor victory in court. Doesn’t he understand that for acid attack survivors like Malti and several others working in his NGO, it is small joys of life that count as they are not leading normal lives. Again, when Malti wants to leave the NGO as even the basic salary is hard to come, Amol gives her a piece of his mind. How can a man, who is running an NGO for acid attack survivors, be so insensitive to the feelings of people, especially acid attack survivors themselves? Also insensitive is his act of correcting Malti when she, according to him, over-reacts to a court victory in the PIL case. Does he have to tell her right then that the victory is not the ultimate victory she had been aiming for? It is also scenes like these that mar the impact of the emotional content of the film. Besides, the writers could’ve easily milked the emotions out of those who are around Malti but even that does not happen well enough. For instance, after Malti has got on with her life post the surgeries, her mother is shown to be more worried about Malti’s salary not coming in time than the fact that Malti’s life ahead would be full of uncertainties. Agreed, the mother is not expected to forever harp on the emotional distress caused by the acid attack on her daughter, but the Hindi cinema-going audience is used to over-pronounced emotions rather than understated. This is not to say that the emotions completely fail to touch the heart. Of course, the viewers do feel empathy for Malti and her condition but that feeling is not enough. In a drama like this, the ideal high for the viewers would be crying at several points and clapping hands for Malti at several other points. But such occasions are hardly there in the screenplay.

Even Atika Chohan and Meghna Gulzar’s dialogues ought to have been more punch-packed and heart-touching. But the fact is that the dialogues do not add to the impact of the drama as they are quite basic. Again, the Hindi film-going audience feels elated when in a drama like this, they are given a chance to cheer for the protagonist due to heavy-weight dialogues.

Deepika Padukone lives the character of Malti and delivers a fantastic performance. She plays Malti so effectively that it would seem as if she were truly an acid attack victim. Vikrant Massey lends wonderful support with his natural performance as Amol. Of course, some of his scenes are weird but that has nothing to do with his acting. Geeta Agrawal and Manohar Teli lend fine support as Malti’s parents but they are not extraordinary. Madhurjeet Sarghi is good as Malti’s lawyer but that’s not saying much. One needed a more solid performance. Payal Nair is under-utilised in the role of the golden-hearted lady who funds Malti’s treatment. Vishal Dahiya is okay as the acid attacker. Strangely, one doesn’t feel the amount of hatred one should’ve felt for his character — and that’s because he doesn’t get enough scope. Ankit Bisht looks good and is alright as Malti’s boyfriend. Chitaranjan Tripathy makes his presence felt as the police officer. Vaibhavi Upadhyay, Sharvari Deshpande and Ipshita Chakrobarty lend fair support. Satish Sharma is okay as the defence lawyer. Nandita Yadav (as the judge in the sessions court), Ali Raza Naamdar (as the judge in the high court), Gita Guha (as DCP Amrita Rai), Monica Sharma (as the female cop), Baharul Islam, Asif Ali Beig, Sarla (all three as Supreme Court judges), Mickey Makhija (as the solicitor general), Jaspal Sharma (as the rickshaw puller), Basha Samboli, Srishti Wadhwani (as Babbu’s sisters), Lotty Alaric (as beauty parlour owner Rachna), Violet Nasir (as Rajesh’s mother), Ashok Sen (as the hardware shopkeeper), and the others are adequate.

Meghna Gulzar’s direction is fair. While she has handled the drama with the sensitivity it needed, she has not been able to make the drama heart-wrenching, and that was what was needed. The trauma and the pain that acid attack victims and their families have to go through don’t come across through the script with the desired intensity. It would not be wrong to say that Deepika’s performance underlines the pain more than the script — and that is a shortcoming of the script writers and director too. The contrary opinion might be that understated emotions also work but then, understated emotions definitely do not work for the masses in this kind of a drama, and they do not work as effectively for a large section of the classes too. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s music is quite good but Gulzar’s lyrics are absolutely outstanding. The songs tug at the heart strings because of the outstanding lyrics. Background music (by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Tubby) is fairly nice. Malay Prakash’s cinematography is very good. Harpal Singh’s action and stunt scenes are realistic. Production designing (by Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray) and art direction (by Pallavi Pethkar and Nilesh Vishvakarma) are appropriate. Nitin Baid’s editing is quite sharp.

On the whole, Chhapaak is a well-made film, has a good message and has noble intentions but it doesn’t make the desired connect with the audience. Also, it is a class-appealing film. It will, therefore, do well mainly in the high-end multiplexes of the big cities. While that would be enough for the producers to recover their costs and make a bit of a profit, a long run and great business don’t look like a possibility. If the film is granted tax-exemption, the business would increase markedly. In fact, the film deserves tax-exemption.

Released on 10-1-’20 at Regal (daily 2 shows) and other cinemas of Bombay by Fox Star Studios India Pvt. Ltd. Publicity: so-so. Opening: quite alright (good in high-end multiplexes). …….Also released all over. Opening was ordinary at many places but good in high-end multiplexes.

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