There’s a scene late in “Chhapaak,” writer-director Meghna Gulzar’s stirringly crafted and intelligently uplifting fact-based drama, where Malti (Deepika Padukone), the survivor of a horrific assault, tentatively expresses her warm feelings to Amol (Vikrant Massey), the crusading activist who has taken up the cause of women who have suffered similar attacks. But, true to form for this fiery idealist, Amol gruffly interrupts her romantic overtures. “This stuff,” he insists, “belongs in the movies.”
It’s tempting to read the exchange as Gulzar’s meta commentary on her own movie, which scrupulously avoids the emotional and stylistic extremes that, for better or worse, have come to define much of contemporary Indian cinema (and not just for Western audiences).
To put it another way: If you walk into “Chhapaak” expecting typical Bollywood razzamatazz, you may be disappointed. There are no lavish production numbers, no exhilarating romantic interludes, no slo-mo acrobatics of any sort — and only two songs, neither of which are sung by anyone onscreen. On the other hand, if you’re up for a conventional yet compelling tale of an exceptional young woman who overcomes brutish mistreatment and regains control of her destiny, you won’t miss the usual song-and-dance at all.
Working with co-writer Atika Chohan, Gulzar has taken a reasonable amount of dramatic license in telling the real-life story of Laxmi Agarwal, a 15-year-old New Delhi girl who, in 2005, was splashed with acid and hideously disfigured by a thirtysomething man whose stalkerish advances she had rebuffed. In “Chhapaak,” the victim is slightly older, and known as Malti. Although Gulzar presents the attack early in the film — shockingly, but with sympathetic discretion — she doesn’t explicitly detail motivation for the crime until a third-act flashback. In the meantime, she smartly focuses on Malti’s efforts to will herself out of despair and depression, undergo a series of restorative surgeries, and press a legal case against her attacker.
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Malti’s chief allies are Archana Bajaj (Madhurjeet Sarghi), a crusading attorney who rails against a national legal system that appears to treat acid assaults on women (a commonplace crime in India) as scarcely worse than misdemeanors, and the aforementioned Amol, the type of single-minded zealot who would serve as buzzkill at a party celebrating a legal victory because, well, he didn’t think the ruling went far enough. (It speaks volumes about Vikrant Massey’s underlying charisma that his character doesn’t come across as a complete pill.)
Occasionally calling to mind socially conscious Warner Bros. melodramas of the 1930s, “Chhapaak” repeatedly emphasizes how ludicrously easy it is (or at least was, until recently) for acid-tossers to procure their assault weapon of choice throughout India. Worse, as attorney Bajaj explains in a key scene that is all the more potent for being so matter-of-factly subdued, the attackers are able to avoid appropriately long prison sentences because, according to the criminal code, throwing acid at someone is no more heinous than dousing them with hot tea.
(A nice touch: Bajaj has ample time to do her crusading because her husband, played by Anand Tiwari, assumes without complaint most of the day-to-day parenting responsibilities for their daughter — whose growth, not incidentally, is a primary indication of time passages in the film.)
As Malti, Indian superstar Deepika Padukone relies less on exceptionally convincing makeup than straight-from-the-heart conviction to give her multifaceted performance the solid ring of truth. Neither she nor Gulzar resort to undue yanking of heartstrings while charting the evolution of Malti’s resolve and recognition of her self-worth. At the same time, however, Padukone brings welcome touches of infectious humor and tart sassiness to the character, particularly while dealing with Amol and interacting with real-life acid-maimed women who appear (most notably, and affectingly, during a train trip) in bit parts.
Two observations on the film’s structure are in order. First: When the audience finally gets to see the untouched beauty of Malti in the third-act flashback, we’re brutally reminded of the sheer monstrousness of her attacker, just at the perfect time to make the film’s resolution even more satisfying. On the other hand, be forewarned: The epilogue is quite capable of slapping the smile right off your face.