Hindi cinema has come a long way. While mindless masala flicks still rule the box office, there is no longer a dearth of impactful storylines with thought-provoking messages. It is clear that Chhapaak, inspired by the real-life story of the trials and tribulations of acid-attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal, falls under the latter category.
The film's plot revolves around the life of Malti, who after surviving an acid attack is trying to do her part in helping other victims of the crime, while simultaneously trying to come to terms with the fact that a single splash or chhapaak, has changed her life forever.
By producing this movie, and by making a commercial actor like Deepika Padukone the face of the saga, the filmmakers have achieved the tricky task of presenting a sensitive topic to consumers of mainstream cinema. The movie was certainly effective in making noise and spreading awareness about a pressing problem in this country. However, it failed to make the kind of impact a movie of such massive production value and impressive cast and crew could have made.
If you enjoyed Chhapaak, but walked out of the movie theatre with a nagging feeling of unfulfillment, you're not alone. Here are five reasons why Chhapaak failed to be the impactful, moving tale that it should have been.
The Movie's Non-Linear Narrative
The non-linear style of storytelling is clever but only works when executed well. When the movie opens, Malti has already filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking the ban on the sale of acid. A few scenes later, we go back in time to when she was attacked. It is only towards the end of the story that we get to see the full sequence of events that lead to her attack. In my opinion, a chronological build-up to attack would have been more impactful. The constant back-and-forth was confusing at times, especially since we had to pay close attention to the sequence of her dates in court.
Little attention was paid to Malti's recovery process
More screentime should have been given to Malti's plight after acid was thrown on her face. Yes, they showed her being angry, sad, crying and wallowing in self-pity. But, it definitely would have been more impactful if the filmmakers gave us a little more insight into her mental anguish, the slow and painful healing process, and more details about the kind of surgeries she required. I felt that by glossing over this part, the directors diluted the severity of the situation. During those scenes, I felt sympathy for Malti, but couldn't fathom the extent of her suffering.
Malti was given agency--but not enough
Right after the acid attack, Malti is withdrawn and depressed--and rightly so. After all, someone who went through such a traumatic event is allowed to take their own time to grieve and heal. Also, the movie never explained her relationship to the benevolent Shiraaz aunty--who is more than happy to get her admitted to a fancy hospital, pay for her numerous expensive surgeries and get a prominent lawyer to take her case. Sadly, in real life, most acid attack victims don't have such fairy godmothers.
Her relationship with Amol
It is evident that Amol, who runs an NGO to help acid-attack survivors, values Malti and plays a significant role in turning her life around. But, however passionate he might be about the cause, he is easily irritable and has an extremely pessimistic outlook for someone who works in the social sector. Throughout the movie, he belittles Malti on several occasions, and never apologises for it. While Malti always stands up for herself (the scene when she reminds him that she is the one who survived an acid attack, not him, was particularly impactful), she continues to put him on a pedestal. It sends the problematic message that when you love someone, you should overlook the way they treat you.
The fairy tale ending
It is impressive how the movie takes us through not only the extreme anguish that an acid attack survivor feels but also the painfully slow legal system that she has to navigate to make sure her perpetrator gets punished. It also shows us the delicate moments when she just wants to be a regular girl--like when is puts on jhumkis for the first time, or when she wants to party to celebrate a small victory. The story is about the strength and resilience of a woman that society is too afraid to acknowledge. Then why, does the movie end with the ultimate Bollywood cliche--that Malti finally gets the man of her dreams?