Chhapaak: Unhappy mix of activism and fiction

Chhapaak: Unhappy mix of activism and fiction

Chhapaak belongs to a new kind of activist-cinema-as-entertainment. It brings to the fore some relevant issues and topics though

Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak has been widely praised for taking up an issue that needs attention – the phenomenon of the acid attack whereby a man – usually someone jilted in love – attacks a young woman with acid and disfigures her for life.

These cases were not dealt with severely enough by the law, but that is changing due to activism. In films dealing with sensitive topics that are subjects of intense activist lobbying one finds the critic hesitating to be critical for fear that he/she will be taken to be cold and uncaring, but one must differentiate between the importance of the cause being expounded and the value of the film as cinema.

In order to have worth as cinema a film cannot simply take a commendable position on a worthy cause. It must have a story that is interesting and explore relationships as any other film does. Social issues, after all, are evidenced in narrative; a film about an acid attack on a woman could intelligently narrativize the social causes of such actions since they are widespread, perhaps explore their relationship to patriarchy, the Indian man’s sense of his ‘right’ to the woman of his choice.

Chhapaak tells the story of a schoolgirl Malti Agarwal (Deepika Padukone) who is splashed with acid by a much older man Basheer Shaik (Vishal Dahiya) for rebuffing his advances, and disfiguring her for life. Basheer Shaik’s sister is complicit in the attack suggesting that the issue is not simply a man versus woman one but has wider implications, although that is not elaborated upon. Much of the film is taken up with Malti joining activist Amol (Vikrant Massey) fighting to get a ban on the sale of acid, court scenes in which Basheer Shaik’s advocate tries to get him off, and the film also enlists actual acid attack victims to appear.

The subject tackled by the film is important and one desperately wants to like it but, at the end one, is left wondering if the issue could have been seen in greater depth. As it is, one finds oneself praising only Deepika’s courage for appearing disfigured through a large part of the film.

Chhapaak belongs to a new kind of activist-cinema-as-entertainment, usually based on real-life stories, but fictionalized. The film-makers in these films seem confused about what direction he or she should take. If a film is being factual, it is not obliged to have a clear idea of why something is happening, especially individual acts, since individual motivations are mysterious and one only speculates. But when a film announces that it is fiction (as Chhapaak does) it must be clear why it portrays something in a certain way. Chhapaak is purportedly based on the story of Laxmi Agarwal who was also attacked with acid by a Muslim man and disfigured because she resisted his advances, but by being faithful to this aspect, the film is putting in a detail it cannot account for as fiction. Acid attacks are apparently most numerous in Uttar Pradesh; Uttar Pradesh is also the state where Hindu-Muslim relationships are being met with most hostility but Meghna Gulzar makes nothing of these issues. My observation here is that the film simply cannot take a detail from real life and insert it into fiction without having a clear idea of why it is doing so. We interpret fiction as we do not always interpret fact and introducing detail about the assailant’s religious affinities has us interpreting it as political discourse. Also, there is the issue of Basheer Shaik enlisting his sister’s support and she actually flinging the acid at Malti. One does not know if this had a real life parallel but we want to know why she did it. Since Chhapaak is constructed fiction, the director cannot ‘not know’ why the detail is there.

 Activist topics as the subjects of entertainment cinema may look like a good idea partly because people tend to be charitable to such films, but while taking up such a subject is welcome, film-makers cannot imagine that they are absolved from the demands of fiction. There need to be characters and complications and the melodrama would perhaps be the best vehicle to help good causes along. We demand that good must triumph over evil in the proper convoluted way with accidents and coincidences dotting the fiction. Merely having issues sorted out in the courtroom through the intervention of lawyers and stories in which resolutions are handed down by judges do not make for satisfying viewing. Under the pretext of ‘realism’ popular cinema is getting more impoverished in its plotting and Chhapaak is a typical instance of the depletion of the narrative by activist intentions. The polemics of activism, film directors must learn, are not incompatible with the demands of fiction.

(The author is a well-known film critic)


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