Acid attacks on women by spurned men are endemic in South Asia. Top Indian actor Deepika Padukone is debuting as a producer and headlining the cast of Disney-owned Fox Star Studios’ “Splash” (“Chhapaak”), a film that deals with the issue.
India’s Hindi-language film industry, known popularly — or pejoratively, depending on your point of view — as Bollywood, has very few women producers. Among the better known are actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas (“Ventilator”), Ekta Kapoor (“Dolly Kitty and Those Twinkling Stars”), Ashi Dua (“Ghost Stories”) and Krishika Lulla (“NH10”). Padukone, however, is loath to bring gender into the equation.
“I’ve turned producer because I want to enable some of the films that I do,” she tells Variety. “I’m not doing it because I’m a woman. At one of these press conferences, they spoke about ‘Splash’ being a female-centric film, for example. No, I’m not doing this film because it is female-centric. It really makes the film small. Sometimes you want to have more skin in the game; you want to be more involved.”
Acid attack perpetrators usually splash acid on the faces of their victims, with a view to disfiguring them. “Splash” is based on the life of Laxmi Agarwal, who survived an acid attack in 2005, at the age of 15, from a rejected suitor. Agarwal launched the Stop Sale Acid campaign, which won plaudits around the world, including a 2014 International Women of Courage Award from then-U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama.
“Splash” is directed by Meghna Gulzar, who is also producer with her company Mriga Films.
“The story is not so much about the incident itself as much as about her life after,” says Padukone. “And what she’s made of. What she’s made her life. How she’s used that experience, what she’s become today, how she’s used her voice. And all of the challenges and the struggles that she and people like her face.”
Padukone made her acting debut with the 2006 Kannada-language film “Aishwarya” and became popular with Bollywood audiences with her next film, the 2007 smash “Om Shanti Om.” Padukone is a familiar face on the Cannes red carpet and at international fashion weeks, endorsing luxury brands such as L’Oréal and sportswear label Nike. She is the chairperson of the Mumbai Film Festival and has spoken candidly about her struggles with depression.
As an actor, Padukone’s credits include “XXX: Return of Xander Cage,” alongside Vin Diesel. The massively successful “Bajirao Mastani” and “Padmaavat” both saw her playing warrior queens who are also paragons of beauty.
Making the choice to portray the victim’s disfigurement in “Splash” is a marked departure from those roles. “People around me view it as a very bold move,” says Padukone. “For me, it’s the same as when I came out with depression: People thought it was bold and brave. I don’t find it brave at all. I was just honest. I can empathize, and I see a lot of merit in telling this story, in it reaching as many people as possible.”
Although “Splash” isn’t the first film on the subject, it may be the most prominent. 2019 saw the release of acclaimed Malayalam-language drama “Up Above” (“Uyare”), which featured a bravura lead performance from Parvathy Thiruvothu as an acid attack survivor. Fox will be releasing “Splash” across 2,000 screens in 41 countries, including the U.S., on Jan. 10.
Identifying violence against women as a global problem, Padukone says that role models like herself should be responsible in highlighting the issue. She advocates a collective multipronged approach to countering it, including education, parenting, media consumption awareness and judicial deterrents.
Padukone is co-producing “Splash” via her Ka Prods. outfit. “‘Ka’ in Egyptian is basically a soul,” says Padukone. “It is the spiritual part of your being that gets left behind after you’ve gone. That’s what I’m aiming to do with the films that I do, either as an actor or as a producer or as actor-producer — leave behind a body of work that people would want to revisit over and over again.”