Major Spoilers for Chhapaak
(Only if you have not seen the trailers)
In an era whereby Bollywood has been content in churning out countless hagiographies and jingoistic propagandas to comfort the mass’ sentiments, the success of the fearless Meghna Gulzar deserves special praise. With Talvar (2015), the female director turned what could have been (and was in the case of Rahasya) a juvenile CID episode into a darkly comic Rashomon-style thriller that questioned the corrupt government system as much as it did the viewer for their complicity in wanting sensationalized news. And, with Raazi (2018), she arguably, took on an even more delicate issue of nationalism and turned it into more of a question than a statement, something unprecedented in a commercial Bollywood thriller. So, the prospect of her tackling another “based on true events” story about an acid-attack survivor filled me with more hope than many biopic films do. But, without the dressing of a particular genre (court-room drama is the closest this gets to), her latest film, Chhapaak (2020), feels oddly in opposition to her other films, emphasizing declarative statements instead of probing questions.
Perhaps, the relatively straight-forward character arc at the center of this story (incidentally, encapsulated from start to finish in the film’s horrible three-minute-long trailer) warrants this more conventional approach. Maybe, only lightly raising a finger at the audience for their complicity in making an acid attack victim’s life hell allows for the audience to empathize more deeply with Malti (Deepika Padukone). Adding a romantic sub-plot with Alok (Vikrant Massey, mostly wasted in a one-note role), maybe, makes them connect more with her life. And, simplifying her recovery from personal trauma in one line that encourages her to “fight against the system,” is something audiences will easily buy.
But, Gulzar, structures this conventional transformation of the self-pitying victim to confident trailblazer so unconvincingly that even the dramatic peaks – the interval point and climax – lack the emotional elation or gut-punch that these scenes should have. Consistently paralleling the public upheaval against Section 307 of Indian Law with the personal recovery that Malti is going through after her traumatic event, the director ambitiously attempts to connect the personal and the political. This suggestion that Malti’s “spirit” to fight against her perpetrators will push her out of her trauma is a powerful one that very clearly indicates the triumph of her resilience. Gulzar, however, is unable to find this connective tissue, making the personal side of Malti’s story feel more peripheral as the political stakes escalate. So, when the applause-worthy moment arrives (again, spoiled, by the end of the trailer), the dialogue never rings true.
The climax of the film doubles down on this very inconsistency, with Malti’s growing sense of joie de vivre that dominates the entirety of the second half being undercut with the decision to flashback to a montage of Malti’s “happy” life before the attack. The director structures the ending in a way that makes narrative sense. But, tonally and thematically, the decision to include this scene after our character has gone through her arc feels downright bizarre. We have seen Malti find happiness in her new life. We now know that she thinks that the perpetrators were unable to “break her.” Then, how does the sudden inclusion of a scene that details her traumatic accident, something that Gulzar barely makes the audience aware of in the second half, not actively work against the thesis that she has triumphed over her attackers?
As disappointing as the director’s treatment of these big moments is, she continues to be one of the few directors in Bollywood who excels at finding genuine horror in small moments. The prologue of the film, for instance, excels at picking apart how the bystanders (i.e., the general public) treat Malti even after she has gone through extensive reconstructive surgery. An encounter with an elderly lady in the saloon leads to her remarking that “saloons should only have beautiful employees.” Another one at McDonald’s has a gentleman allowing Malti to place her order first because his perspective of her is just that of a victim. The opposite attitude – of accusation and skepticism – is also noted. During the investigatory sequences when the film most resembles Talvar, Gulzar lingers on dialogue that questions this dismissive attitude, not shying away from possibly provoking audiences who attach their judgments to Malti’s character.
Similarly, she finds some scenes to highlight Malti’s ordinariness, which Padukone beautifully embodies. Her resentment at hearing the first lines of the Kal Ho Naa Ho title track that voices her own growing concerns of “moments changing the pathways of (her) life,” her infectious laugh when the rickshaw driver pokes fun at Alok’s hot-headed temperament, and her frequent playful downplaying of her appearance are memorable snippets of a heartfelt performance. That, sadly, is still not able to consistently elevate this from feeling like an underwhelming biopic.