It is 2005. Har Ghadi Badal Rahi Hai Roop Zindagi is the latest chartbuster on the radio. Abhijeet Sawant, Amit Sana and Rahul Vaidya are fighting it out to be the first Indian Idol. Inside a two-room servant quarter in one of the bungalows in Delhi’s posh Golf Lawns, a 17-year-old dances to Sonu Nigam crooning har pal yahaan, jee bhar jiyo, jo hai samaa, kal ho na ho.
It is kal. The next day. The ‘samaa’ is different. Malti’s life has changed forever.As she falls on the ground, dealing with an unbearable pain, a lone passerby pours water on her head. She screams. He dials 100. A PCR takes Malti to the hospital. Someone has thrown acid on her. The police begin hunting for the attacker.
“Aapki beti toh girls’ school mein padhti hai. Saare phone numbers ladko ke kyu hai uske phone mein?” a policeman throws at her father. The viewer shifts uncomfortably in her chair in the theatre. They zero in on the attacker. And so it begins.Malti goes from pain to accepting herself, and makes us hope with her. Director Meghna Gulzar doesn’t let you forget her protagonist’s struggle for even one wayward moment though. For an exuberant Malti, Meghna pushes ahead a cynical Amol. “Nirashawadi,” someone teases him.
Chhapaak begins in 2012 when Delhi is crying we want justice for its gangrape victim. You’ve seen those scenes far too many times now. Among this crowd, a man holds up the photo of an acid victim in front of a TV camera. He is asked to move out of the frame. Amol spits at the crew, “Rape ke aage acid ki kya keemat. Uncle ko samajh hi nahi aata.” Meghna Gulzar takes us next to Malti’s story, trying hard to make us understand why, why would anyone do this to someone. The director handholds her viewer through the courtrooms where hope sinks into hopelessness which transforms into hope. Life oscillates between what could have been and what is.
The win for Chhapaak lies in its crisp narrative, backed by some solid performances by each one of the cast. Leading this talented pack is Deepika Padukone, the Pretty-Face Padukone, who let go of that face for this film. Deepika bites hard into Malti and makes you sit up and squirm with her, scream with her when she first sees her new face. As she looks at the mirror and tries inserting a jhumka through her earlobe, and then realises the acid has taken even that away, you hear her heart breaking. That the director uses ‘har ghadi badal rahi hai roop zindagi’ in the background, on that same radio, is a kick in your gut. You realise what half a Rs-30 bottle of acid does.
Director Meghna Gulzar brings Laxmi Agarwal’s story to film with a stunning clarity. Chhapaak stays brutally honest and close to the story of Laxmi. The religion’ of the attacker included. Bashir Khan’s (Vishal Dahiya) Joe Goldbergesque eyes pierce through you, making you uncomfortable.
Madhurjeet Sarghi puts ahead a powerful lawyer in her Archana Bajaj. Vikrant Massey, the ever reliable Vikrant Massey, does a spectacular job yet again. Vikrant as Amol is too pained by the plight of the acid attack victims that he heads an NGO for. So much so, that he gets told off by Malti for being a killjoy: Aapka problem pata hai kya hai? Aapko lagta hai aap pe acid phenka gaya hai. In that one sentence, the director gives us Vikrant, gives us Deepika and gives us what their characters are.
The dialogues of the film are simple. They do their job of telling a story without coming down heavy on your ears. Meghna Gulzar lets Deepika’s face do the rest. Every time you see her staring out of the screen, you are reminded of this evil that India is still fighting. Acid is still being sold and bought for ‘prices cheaper than cola’. The last attack, Chhapaak says, was on December 7 last year. The last reported attack, of course.
Chhapaak makes you feel every moment of an acid survivor’s life. It is a shame therefore that Meghna and her team let the songs hamper the pace of the film. Some of the songs are necessary and don’t seem like a hindrance. The title track Chhapaak in Arijit Singh’s voice stays with you. The relationship between Deepika and her brother too is left frustratingly unexplored, to the point that not even a word is exchanged between the siblings. At points, the editing is not smooth.