Meghna Gulzar has cemented her place as a sensible female director in recent years. While Talvar led her to the limelight boosted by critical acclaim, it is her previous film – “Raazi” that secured her place in the big league of directors. The Irrfan Khan-starrer “Talvar” showed her skills to dwell in the nitty-gritty of a complex incident. Its Rashomon-Esque nature takes you back to the same situations over and over while getting even deeper into the infamous murder case. Despite having control over the emotions in the film, she largely builds it on the delicate and fallible human nature and its grounded depiction. Thus, the film goes beyond the scope of its central narrative and often becomes cathartic for the viewers.
‘Chhapaak’ takes a slightly different route. The film, as I would like to describe it, is a compilation of moments, largely dependent on their individual emotional impact. Based on the real-life acid-attack survivor – Laxmi Agarwal, the film stitches the parts of her life that impacted through this particular incident. The real Laxmi had become a strong voice on this issue, while firmly promoting a ban on acids. Her actions had been in the eyes of a large population which makes her narrative largely known. Building a film on a common knowledge thus becomes a tad more demanding in terms of going beyond the informational bits.
While taking this task, the script of Chhapaak falls short in going beyond executing and presenting the actual scenarios on film. It hinders the timeline and plays with the notions of the aftermath in accordance with the previous scenarios. But it doesn’t necessarily go beyond to find the roots and the societal reasons that fuel the minds of the evil perpetrators. It still evokes horror but mostly because of the actions being shown and hardly because of the social conditioning behind them, which we are as much a part of. The film perhaps loses the chance to become the defining one on this issue.
But it doesn’t leave without its shimmers of beauty and excellence. With its direction, Chhapaak does try to go beyond being a type of reportage. It gets to the basic emotion of Laxmi’s tragedy and weaves it into the moments of horror, disgust, and vulnerability. The trailer gives away an idea of a film too Bollywoodized to find a human emotion beyond these three. The two-and-a-half-minute video thus showed its loudness being the only scope of the narrative. But Meghna’s direction is so firm on the idea of resilience and power of this lady that it goes beyond its occasional contrivances and its short-sighted narrative.
The preaching nature in Chhapaak is apparent and most of the social messaging are on-the-face as well. You see every narrating choice serving a specific symbolic purpose throughout the duration. Take the formidable female lawyer for example, whose husband is shown doing the chores that are generally expected by women in an Indian household. It may look unrealistic and slightly contrived to many. But for some reason, it works in this case. Perhaps that has to do with a singular vision to convey a progressive lookout on such issues. A sensitive titular issue won’t be without its rooted social reasons. And the gender norms being pitted against the wall is precisely what the tone of this film requires to bring out the needed sensibility.
Besides that, the director Meghna surely has a knack to find something so enriching with her characters within a particular milieu that they inhabit. Be it Deepika’s character singing with joy with other acid-attack survivors or solely her innocent and reassuring smile while looking at Massey’s character from a distance, the film is filled with an abundance of understanding for these treasured and raw emotions. I would be lying if I say that I didn’t have tears while watching it. The same resilience, the want for life and a strong will to ace the hardships are captured with an incredible amount of empathy which is just so hard to miss.
While Deepika leads the ship quite satisfying, it is the supporting cast such as Vikrant Massey or Madhurjeet Sarghi that often ace in terms of their skilled performances. Massey’s character runs an NGO for acid-attack survivors and betterment of their lives yet his character is so stern and practical to the point it becomes hard to believe that he works for such a sensible cause. The way he manages to capture both – this discernible distance from the emotional bits while showcasing ‘silent love’ is commendable. It’s an absolute wonder how he still somehow understands this character being supportive of Malti’s (played by Padukone) and provides this warmth as a figure behind.
And while the particularly dramatic shots from the lenses of Malay Prakash find the right tone, the editing weaves them with just the required amount of importance to evoke a sense of empathy. ‘Chhapaak’, as a result of much of this, emerges as an important and evocative film while keep one wanting for something more cerebral.