Tag Archives: Meghna Gulzar

Movie Review: Chhapaak (2020)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Filmmaker Meghna Gulzar has handled tricky real-life topics before, choosing a true crime story as the subject of her terrific thriller Talvar. For her latest film Chhapaak (“Splash“), Gulzar tackles another challenging topic, that of acid attacks on women. While informative, Chhapaak‘s plot lacks emotional punch.

Like Talvar, Chhapaak‘s narrative is non-linear. It begins in 2012, as a brutal gang rape in Delhi turns public attention toward violence against women. Twenty-something Malti (Deepika Padukone) struggles to find work, years after her face was severely scarred with acid. A reporter eager to revive interest in Malti’s story connects her with Amol (Vikrant Massey), who gives Malti a job at the non-governmental organization he runs aiding acid attack victims.

The job triggers a flashback to Malti’s own attack when she was nineteen. A much older family friend, Babbu (Vishal Dahiya), burned her when she rebuffed his marriage proposal. The acid scarred most of Malti’s face, requiring months of recovery and multiple surgeries over several years. The court battle to convict Babbu takes even longer. Malti’s dogged lawyer Archana (Madhurjeet Sarghi) is determined to see Babbu sentenced not just for the physical injury he caused but for attempted murder, in a move to force the courts to treat acid attacks more seriously than the law currently does.

A surprising amount of Chhapaak‘s story is devoted to the details of the court proceedings in Malti’s case and her subsequent petition for a federal ban on the sale of acid. Archana and her legal team debate strategies and counterarguments in long scenes where Malti isn’t even present. During trial scenes, Malti often sits quietly behind her lawyers without participating.

It’s an odd choice to sideline the film’s marquee star for such scenes, which are more educational than they are emotional. They also take time away from aspects of Malti’s story that are underdeveloped, chiefly relationships within her family. There’s a simmering resentment between Malti’s mother and wealthy aunt Shiraz (Payal Nair), who pays for Malti’s surgeries, but we don’t know their history. We also don’t know anything about the relationship between Malti and her younger brother. In the aftermath of her attack, he’s ignored so completely that no one in the house realizes he’s developed tuberculosis. The siblings never have a conversation about how their lives changed because of what was done to Malti.

The problem with the way Gulzar and co-writer Atika Chohan use the non-linear format in Chhapaak is that flashbacks to who Malti was before the attack are saved until very late in the film. Only then do we get a glimpse of her friendships and her dreams for the future. The acid attack changed Malti externally but internally as well, but holding back information about who Malti was means we only see her reckoning with her external changes, not her internal ones.

I suspect some of this stems from the fact that Malti is based on a real woman who is still very much alive. 29-year-old Laxmi Agarwal survived an acid attack as a teen and later became a prominent activist and television personality. Perhaps in deference to Agarwal, Chhapaak‘s focus steers away from its heroine’s internal struggles and family drama to her courtroom victories and romantic relationship with Amol. (With regard to that, Padukone and Massey do share a charming chemistry.)

That aspect of the story feeds into the thing that Chhapaak does best, which is encourage its audience to see past the damage done by the acid to the person within. The prosthetics used on Padukone are well-crafted, changing with each of Malti’s surgeries. Gulzar also cast real acid attack survivors to play the other workers at the NGO.

Yet, even at the very end, Gulzar can’t resist centering Chhapaak on the issue rather than the characters. The film’s brief final scene (not a spoiler) introduces some new women who are splashed with acid, followed by a note that one of them died as a result, followed by a still of written statistics about acid attacks in India. No one would have assumed that, just because the film shows progress being made that the problem of acid attacks was magically solved, rendering this scene unnecessary.

While Chhapaak deserves credit for shining light on a worthy subject, it could have been done in a way that was more narratively satisfying.

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Movie Review: Talvar (2015)

Talvar4 Stars (out of 4)

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*Author’s note: Though this film is based on a true story, I reviewed the film as a stand-alone piece of art, not as a referendum on the 2008 Noida double murder case.

A candlelight vigil is held following a teenage girl’s murder, protesters holding signs demanding justice for the victim. Director Meghna Gulzar and writer Vishal Bhardwaj highlight the subjective natures of truth and justice in the hypnotic mystery Talvar (international title: “Guilty“).

The girl is 14-year-old Shruti Tandon (Ayesha Parveen), found dead in her bedroom by her parents, who apparently slept through their daughter’s murder. Shruti’s father, Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi), and mother, Nutan (Konkona Sen Sharma), fall under suspicion after the original suspect — a servant named Khempal — is found murdered on the roof of their apartment building.

The initial police investigation is a calamity. Neighbors and detectives wander obliviously through the family’s apartment, contaminating the crime scene. Officers neglect to preserve crucial evidence because they are busy taking photos of each other next to the body on the roof.

With the most obvious suspect exonerated by virtue of his being dead, the police invent outlandish theories to establish the guilt of the parents. They rely heavily on the testimony of Ramesh’s employee, Kanhaiya (Sumit Gulati), who has a grudge against his boss.

At the press conference announcing formal charges against the Tandons, the police chief mispronounces Shruti’s name and assassinates her character. The chief accuses Ramesh of wife-swapping, adding, “He is as characterless as his daughter was.” Embarrassed by the conduct of the police, the government turns the case over to the Central Department of Investigation (CDI), handing the reins to officer Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan).

As new theories of the crime are introduced, Gulzar reenacts each version as though it were true. Ramesh and Nutan are shown as either savvy killers or grief-stricken parents, depending on who is telling the tale.

The technique is integrated seamlessly into the narrative of the investigation, which changes hands three times. That means that Shruti’s death is shown over and over again, in gory detail. Even though the investigation is the focus of the story, the audience is never allowed to forget the two deaths that started it.

The point of Talvar is not so much to establish the truth of what happened — a fact made extraordinarily difficult thanks to the botched initial investigation — but the multiple ways that evidence can be interpreted. The different conclusions reached by the police, Ashwin, and his successor Paul (Atul Kumar), reveal as much about the investigators as they do about the crime itself.

Gulzar maintains the gravity of the story with sparing use of background music (also written by Bhardwaj). Uncomfortable interrogations are made even more uncomfortable without the distraction of a musical score. Gulzar also coaxes great performances from her cast, especially Kabi, Sharma, and Gulati, who have to act in the present day storyline as well as the reenactments of the murder.

Irrfan Khan is amazing, with Ashwin standing in for the audience as the objective observer. Well, as objective as Ashwin can be whilst being pressured into a divorce by his wife, Reemu (Tabu). The divorce subplot again highlights that the participants are human beings, not crime-solving robots. Same for the detail about Paul bringing his son with him to the crime scene because he can’t find a babysitter.

Talvar is an engrossing police procedural full of humanity. It’s both a joy and a nightmare to watch, knowing that the story is based on a real incident. Gulzar’s direction is tense, but never exploitative. This is a terrific film.

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