When the trailer for Chhapaak first released, I was unsure if I would watch it. I’m highly sensitive to films and books that highlight crimes against women. Some of my sensitivity comes from triggers in my own past, and some of it comes from the weight of emotional exhaustion. I’m tired of reading about violent crimes against women, I have no more emotional capacity for inhumanity. But I was totally wrong, Chhapaak isn’t just about acid attacks, it’s about survivors and the circumstances they face after an attack.
It will come as no surprise that people stare at acid attack survivors, and some are even scared or disgusted by their faces. But the film shows us a lot more than that. It reminds the viewer of the social norms in India that create an environment that allows for acid attacks. Women there live in a world where sexual harassment, unwanted advances, stalking, and even obsession are considered “normal” ways that men woo a woman. When those advances are rejected, many young men turn to scarring a woman with acid, because it’s so readily available, and so many others have done it.
The most shocking part of Chhapaak for me was learning how accessible corrosive acid is in India. For just 30 rupees you can buy something that will cause unimaginable pain and scar someone forever, at pretty much any market. Throughout the film we are reminded ‘agar acid bikta nahin to fikta nahin’ (if acid wasn’t sold it wouldn’t be splashed.) We also learn that even though India’s Supreme Court passed a law that makes acid difficult to purchase and requires ID and records submitted to the local police, no one is enforcing that law.
Chhapaak also shows the viewer how acid attack victims are judged not only for their own actions prior to the attack and how they may have “caused it”, but they are also judged for learning to live with their scarred faces and trying to move on with their lives. Why are you happy? What do you have to be happy about? It’s the classic desi catch 22 for women. Why are you smiling you are (insert – single, brotherless, childless, widowed, etc etc)? Being an acid attack victim is another way to disqualify women from a happy existence, as though her feeling were burned away with her skin.
Perhaps most importantly the film is triumphant. Carried on the back of two amazing women – Meghna Gulzar (the director) and Deepika Padukone (the lead actor). The gripping ending reminds us that even as women around the world are suffering and we must advocate for them, we must also encourage the survivors around us to thrive. We are more than our bodies and our faces, we are our spirit.
Indian acid attacks are on the rise, and the women who survive them are forced to live as outcasts – via ABC news (Aug 2019)
Acid attacks against women in India are on the rise; survivors fight back – via USA Today (July 2017)
India Supreme Court orders curb on sales of acid – via BBC News (July 2013)
Tough laws sharply reduce Bangladesh acid attacks on women – The Straits Times (Nov 2019)
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