Chhapaak: Beyond the Burns Ward

Chhapaak: Beyond the Burns Ward

Graft by graft, layer by layer, the film unpeels the Indian way of life from law to patriarchy, family ties to kindness, grief to grit and why a dupatta matters so much in an acid attack victim’s life

Chhapaak—directed by Meghana Gulzar, produced and acted in by Deepika Padukone one of the most popular newsmakers of the last decade—is essentially a poignantly told crime story. A heinous, revengeful, cruel acid attack on a schoolgirl who dared to dream.

But since every crime is viscerally inseparable from the idea of punishment—the victim punished by the act of crime and if justice is served, the very long road that the people, the state and the legal system must cover to punish the criminal—Chhapaak lights up the Indian way of life in many ways. Its coercive and scarring ways as well as the redemptions that are peculiar to cultures. Coping, managing, lamenting, emotional bonds, family ties, love, lost and found, kindness and grace, enablement and commitment, the soldiers and shamers of law. Not to mention iron clad female resilience.


A still from the film Chhapaak.

Why should The Voice of Fashion write about Chhapaak?

Because in the burnt and reconstructed fragments of Malti’s skin (Padukone playing real life acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal who was attacked in Delhi in 2005) and life lives a throbbing, painful and endearing tale of quiet self-love and awareness that is linked to appearance. The uplifting promise of a pulverized ear restored by surgical intervention, so that an earring can be worn again. The slow but sure reconstruction of the nose and lips. The many layers of skin grafting and cosmetic intervention that metaphorically mirror the layer-by-layer, graft by graft, rebuilding of hope. The persistent will to stay on course with exhausting legalities, argue endlessly and stand up for a PIL against the sale of acid.


Deepika Padukone and Vikrant Massey in a still from the film.

The tall and pretty schoolgirl Malti is disfigured to a mass of palpitating pain, screams and a dark phase of self-rejection. She restarts from patchy, burnt, peeling, brown-yellow skin and nipped hair to regaining the courage to look at her own destroyed outer layer. Her, long, dark silky hair grows again and after seven surgeries, her face gets a definition. She rediscovers herself. Later, in the film as her understanding of self and society evolves and hope seeps back, you notice a thin line of eyeliner, a pale lipstick, a carefully chosen dupatta.

The viewer also understands why a dupatta especially a soft white one is so significant in the life of an acid attack victim. Its tactility matters too as does its role as a veil.

Malti’s is not the only appearance that give the film steely realism. Applause for costume designer Abhilasha Sharma (assisted by Shrutika Rokade and Ekta Singh) for the sensitivity with which the clothes have been assigned to different characters. The “journalist” with silver jewellery and a large nose pin. The silken Ajrakh dupattas and woven shawls of the cappuccino-haired Shiraz aunty (the kind employer of Malti’s father who pays for all her surgeries). The black and white court-appropriate ensembles of Malti’s lawyer Archana Bajaj (played by Madhurjeet Sarghi) and the jholawala pessimism of Amol (played by Vikrant Massey), a journalist who quits his reporting life to found an NGO for acid attack victims. Compellingly, Malti wears printed salwar kameez sets with soft chiffon-georgette dupattas with crocheted edges. There is nothing synthetic or stiff, nothing over layered or tailored for effect.


Another still from Chhapaak.

Clover Wooton’s makeup and the prosthetics used in the film make Padukone look both like herself as well as like Laxmi whose story this is. Incredibly so.

If there is a recognizable Meghana Gulzar directorial touch of drawing attention to existential truths, it is very noticeable. Lawyer Bajaj’s daughter for instance, seen as a little girl arguing for her plaits to be done right when Malti is first attacked is later seen as an adolescent in a dress and red lipstick. Years have rolled by in the interim—the courts have dragged their feet, many other girls have been acid attacked over these years, some die, others live, some barely live. A few of them are seen as part of the NGO that Amol runs and Malti joins. These survivors cover their faces, fearful of the frightened gaze or the disgusting look, then they uncover themselves and their resolves. Each finds the spirit unburnt.

The best part is that this dialogue between beauty, grotesqueness, fear and restoration goes on quietly. There is no hysteria, no vain lamenting or chest-beating rage.

In Amol’s Fabindia kurta is the recognizable persistent middle class Indian. In Malti’s silver earrings that she begins to wear again after reconstructive surgery is her gift of playing it by the ear.