Tag Archives: Vikrant Massey

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: Half Girlfriend (2017)

0.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Half Girlfriend is a tiresome retread of a familiar Bollywood setup. The world within the film exists for the manipulation and satisfaction of the male lead character, regardless of the toll it takes on the woman he pursues.

Just as in another problematic movie from earlier in 2017 — Badrinath Ki DulhaniaHalf Girlfriend tries to justify its outdated formula by having its main character hail from a state with a bad reputation regarding gender equality. Half Girlfriend‘s Madhav (Arjun Kapoor) is from Bihar, a state that borders Badrinath’s Uttar Pradesh. Neither movie is interested in actually addressing the causes or consequences of inequality in either state, just in appropriating a regressive mindset so that the female lead can be treated as a prop rather than a real person.

Lest we dismiss Madhav as some uneducated hick, the story — based on a book by Chetan Bhagat and adapted for the screen by Tushar Hiranandani and Ishita Moitra — emphasizes that he’s the son of a royal family. He lives in a mansion with his mother (played by Seema Biswas), who runs a school in their small town.

Yet, Madhav is so privileged and insulated that only after he graduates with a degree in sociology from St. Stephens College in Delhi does he ask his mother, “Why don’t any girls attend our school?” How did he not notice that earlier?!

As with so many Bollywood heroes before him, it’s Madhav’s job to bend the universe to his will. That primarily takes the form of him forcing everyone to engage with him in Hindi, even though instruction at St. Stephens is conducted exclusively in English. No matter how high the stakes, Madhav steadfastly refuses to apply himself enough to become proficient in English. The movie rewards him at every turn by having English speakers claim to have understood Madhav’s “heart,” if not his words.

Then there’s Riya (Shraddha Kapoor), with whom Madhav is smitten on first sight. “Such a beautiful girl plays basketball?” he wonders, insultingly. He’s apparently never heard of hoops legend/fashion model Lisa Leslie, which is surprising since Madhav’s a b-ball nut and a big fan of “Steven Curry.”

The basketball in Half Girlfriend is absolutely terrible, by the way. The camera only shoots the actors from the shoulders up since apparently neither of them learned how to dribble for their roles as college athletes. (Frankly, their entire performances in Half Girlfriend lack commitment.) Also, a scene in which Madhav wildly airballs dozens of attempted half-court shots is unbelievable. That’s a shot serious basketball players practice for fun from an early age.

Once Madhav decides that he wants beautiful, popular Riya for his own, he follows her everywhere, memorizing every detail she posts on Facebook. They strike up a friendship on the court, but she’s clearly not interested in him romantically. She pulls her hand away whenever he tries to touch it. Well, she tries to, but Madhav literally won’t let her go.

Madhav’s roommate Shailesh (Vikrant Massey) — who is otherwise the voice of reason in the film — says that the only way to know Riya’s feelings for sure is to “get her in the room.” In case that didn’t sound rapey enough, Madhav locks the door once Riya is inside. When Riya resists Madhav’s attempted seduction (the author writes euphemistically), he gets violent with her. Riya refuses to talk to him after that, triggering a sad musical montage of Madhav screwing up in a basketball game because he’s too upset to concentrate. Boo hoo.

Madhav’s violence toward Riya renders a romance between them unsatisfactory. However, because we know the beats of the male-entitlement Bollywood romance storyline, we know that Riya won’t be able to rid herself of Madhav that easily.

Half Girlfriend is monstrously unfair to Riya. Every man in her life is abusive to her in some way.  While Madhav claims to love Riya, he refuses to accept a relationship with her on her terms; he wants to possess her. Rather than protecting Riya, the older women in her life insist that she tolerate the intolerable and put a man’s needs before her own. Riya is utterly alone. If told from her perspective, Half Girlfriend would be a horror movie.

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