Ms Representation: Chhaapak, a story of tender courage and silent dignity
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes about Deepika Padukone's Chhappak
In an earlier piece for this column, I had written about the ‘perils of a single story’. In that, I had written about how our women characters are disturbingly unidimensional. Since then, it's become apparent that this happens with behaviour as well. Unsaid notions seem to dictate how emotions manifest themselves. Like how the strength is associated with being loud or vocal; like how boldness is signified by the clothes a woman wears, or how sadness finds resonance through tears.
I revisited several of these qualms as I watched Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak, featuring Deepika Padukone as Malti, an acid attack survivor. There is certain anger such stories naturally embody. It is only fair to be angry when your dreams are burnt with a bottle of acid. Chhapaak focusses on a period after the anger has run out, and Malti steps into a zone of weariness. Reluctant acceptance has set in. Yes, it is unfair. But will justice pay bills? Yes, it is horrendous. But will justice rescue from hospitals and courts? Fighting back is the right thing to do, but does that make it easy?
Chhapaak’s protagonist is a reluctant warrior, one who picks up the sword not because she wants to, but because she has no other choice. And so, we get a film that is heartbreakingly tender. Except for one soul-crushing cry that Malti gives on seeing herself in the mirror the first time, she hardly screams. But she wears the pain with such dignity that it chokes you. After becoming a poster girl of sorts for acid attack survivors, Malti rushes to Mumbai to help another victim, only to be too late. And outside the victim’s door stands a silently morose Malti, only to say she’s jealous of the victim, for she has now escaped the surgeries and courts. There’s no drama as she says this, but it changes our perception of her world of pain. Poetic, yet powerful. Silent, but strong. Reserved, but resilient.
But what I loved about Chhapaak is that it doesn’t identify Malti’s journey just by the pain she embodies. It celebrates her smallest achievements, the way it should. Like when Malti decides to celebrate when a separate clause is created for acid attack victims. As she says, “Acid ruined my face and I, want to party.” Or the smile she wears as she discovers her love for jhumkas again. Every time Malti smiles without inhibitions, or crinkles her nose or sticks her tongue out to mock Amol, the way her eyes light up behind the trauma her face carries, it makes us identify with Malti as a person, and not just her trauma. There was much talk about how a ‘beautiful actor’ transformed to play a not-so-conventionally ‘beautiful’ character. But that’s the point of such stories, to remind us that beauty is beyond convention. And it is time we freed them from such boxes. Malti is beautiful in all ways possible, and Deepika, in her best performance yet, plays her with so much grace. In fact, one can say the same about the other women in this film as well. They sing slogans in trains, but not with anger, but as a replacement for film songs. “I will get a face like Alia Bhatt,” says a survivor. Meghna Gulzar realises that such moments have their own charm. They don’t need anything to charm our socks off, they just have to be told.
I also found the female camaraderie quite heartening in Chhaapak; it is probably the effect of having so many women in production. The first time Malti is shown to face the press, fellow female journalists shoot down problematic and redundant questions from the male press. While male reporters wonder about how acid is used at home, a female reporter is quick to ask, 'How do you think your bathrooms are cleaned?'. And when another reporter wonders aloud about the boyfriend Malti had, another reporter pops up to ask ‘What kind of a question is this? Are you implying it’s her fault?' There’s reality in how Malti and Archana Bajaj, the lawyer, function as well. After Malti becomes a prominent name, Archana calls her up to remind her about a hearing. “How can I forget,” says Malti, only to have Archana say, “I would be happy if you could forget.” After being pitted against each other for centuries, it is refreshing to see women hold each other up and in ways that only they can do.
There was another film that centred around a survivor, Uyare, that hit the screens some time back. A very effective film, Uyare too raised several questions that Chhapaak does. But if you look at the films, you will understand how differently a similar story can be experienced by two different people, how one incident can be narrated by two different storytellers. If Pallavi’s anger and feistiness are a reflection of revolution, so is Malti’s guarded smile and tenacity. And you know what they say about perspective, “It is not what you look at matters, it is what you see.” And we can never have enough of that.