A Burning Question of Reality
A look at how popular cinema in the recent past has visually and narratively represented acid attack victims in India
While watching Deepika Padukone’s film Chhapaak, during the scene when Deepika’s face begins to disintegrate in the hospital – slowly – the audience in the theatre also disintegrated from a collective gasp to a collective silence – slowly. It was as if the horror of just another number in the newspaper – 1483 victims of acid attack between 2014 and 2018 (National Crime Records Bureau) – becomes an unpalatable reality, sharing the same space on the big screen as a Salman Khan walking in slow (ah, that word again) motion or an item song. It was as if Samuel Taylor Coleridge had arrived, with an albatross around his neck, urging us to willingly suspend disbelief.
The success of Chhapaak for me, despite its visible flaws in the screenplay and its need to resort to the fairytale ‘they lived happily ever after’ ending, was this – that it brought the acid victim centrestage, that it transformed the notions of disfigurement into something more humane, that it forced us to watch the ugliness of a patriarchy we have built, the ugliness of apathy we inhabit on a regular basis, the ugliness of our laws and its Sisyphean nightmares, and the flawlessness of hope entrenched in dreams untouched by acid. Based on the life of activist Laxmi Agarwal, Chhapaak left me – us – emotionally drained, like a relentless mirror refusing to show you anything but the face beneath the make-up.
That same week, I watched the 2019 Malayalam film Uyare on Netflix. And it struck me that a story about an acid attack victim could also be, simultaneously, emotionally uplifting. Much like its title that means ‘Up, Above’, the film traces the journey of Pallavi (Parvathy Thiruvothu), whose dreams of becoming a pilot are cut short by her emotionally abusive boyfriend who throws acid on her when she walks out of the relationship. While the film might be peppered with regular tropes and characters – supportive father, supportive friend, supportive employer – what set it apart was Pallavi’s fiery feminism, her anger, her drive to look ahead while finding closure for the past, and her clarity in relationships. I think my favourite moment in the film was when her employer falls in love with her and she says, ‘I want more of this friendship, without any conditions, rules or obligations. Just a beautiful friendship. Let’s not steer that in any other direction’. Nothing made her more real than that moment when she was able to see herself – and by extension, her relationships – beyond her scars, the literal and the metaphorical.
It also helped erase the very problematic token representation of an acid attack victim in the 2019 Tamil commercial (sadly blockbuster) film, Bigil, that pretended to be a feminist film, obviously mansplained by the hero, Vijay, for the audience. A girl, forced to abandon her dreams of playing professional football, suddenly emerges after years of hiding from the world after she listens to one impassioned speech by Vijay – the coach – who sits outside her closed door and speaks. She is one of the many in the team that Vijay is out to liberate, and therefore, she gets about four scenes to explain the layers that even an entire film cannot contain. Once she emerges, what does the coach do? He takes her back to her practice field, where he has the man who perpetrated the violence held captive and he ‘urges’ her to look him in the face to erase the past. The logic being, ‘you don’t have to hide your face, he has to.’ While that must have sounded fabulous on paper, and as a concept it might hold its own, it is in the flawed understanding, in situating it in a misplaced idea of ‘feminism’ where Bigil fails. Not just with this almost cavalier use of an acid attack character, but in the characterisation of all its female actors. Like a Fair & Lovely ad, the hero arrives, gives them a tube of fake wokeness a.k.a. patriarchal crap, and the team plays, wins, and all is well.
But, thankfully, the women are stepping up, as is evident with Chhapaak and Uyare – not just actors, but as directors and producers, too – and nuance is coming back in fashion, despite the disfiguration of years of single, myopic narratives.