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'Chhapaak' Film Aims To Fight Stigma Against Acid Survivors


A new Bollywood movie tackles an issue that affects hundreds of Indian women each year - acid attacks. It's a biopic of a young woman who survived one. A man intentionally threw chemicals on her to disfigure her. At least one such attack is reported every other day in India, as NPR's Mumbai producer Sushmita Pathak reports.

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: The trailer of the movie shows doctors pouring water on a woman just after she's been splashed with acid.


DEEPIKA PADUKONE: (As Malti, screaming).

PATHAK: The movie is called "Chhapaak," which means splash in Hindi. It's based on a true story and features an acid attack survivor as its protagonist. In the film, 19-year-old Malti is attacked by a man after she rejects him. Her face is disfigured almost beyond recognition. Malti struggles with her new identity at first, but overcomes her trauma eventually.


PADUKONE: (As Malti, non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: "They change my face, not my spirit," she says in one powerful scene. The film chronicles her activism to ban the sale of acid in India. In the tiny office of a Mumbai-based NGO for acid survivors, founder Daulat Bi Khan tells a similar story. Long burn scars run along her arms. Her ears are shriveled. She used to work as a makeup artist before she was attacked.

DAULAT BI KHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: Khan says her brother-in-law never liked that she wore jeans. He used to tell her, I'm going to ruin your beauty. Then one day, he threw acid on Khan after an argument over money. She says other relatives were also in on it. Three of them were convicted but did very little prison time, she says. Ten years and 17 surgeries later, Khan says she hasn't recovered.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) It's hard for acid victims to move on because our faces remind us of our attack every single day. No one wants to employ us. My neighbors used to ask me to shut the drapes because they didn't want to look at me.

PATHAK: Khan says she got emotional when she watched the movie "Chhapaak" recently with a group of fellow survivors. She hopes it will help chip away at the stigma against acid survivors. The movie has already inspired one Indian state to introduce compensation for acid victims. The movie has not been a huge box office hit, but it got a lot of publicity because it stars one of the biggest names in Bollywood, Deepika Padukone, in the lead role. Padukone also co-produced it.


PADUKONE: It'll be my most special film of my career.

PATHAK: During a press event, a teary-eyed Padukone recalled how she'd said yes to the role immediately. Film critic Poulomi Das compares Padukone to Hollywood starlet Jennifer Lawrence. She says people want to watch the movie because of Padukone. "Chhapaak" is the first mainstream Bollywood film about acid attacks.

POULOMI DAS: It's definitely, like, an interesting direction for Bollywood to go because usually you think of these topics as documentary subjects.

PATHAK: But that's changing. Last year, there was a movie on India's caste system. In 2018, there was one about the taboo around menstruation in India. And while both those films had famous male actors in the lead, "Chhapaak's" star is a woman. That is a big deal, Das says.

DAS: Female actors are taking risk, are taking ownership of stories that go beyond the ordinary and who just refuse to just play the sidekick.


PATHAK: Back at her NGO office, acid survivor and activist Daulat Bi Khan says she appreciates Padukone taking up this role. She hopes this is a step toward changing how people view victims.

KHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: "A woman's life doesn't stop because she's attacked with acid," Khan says. She encourages survivors to show their faces in public, to wear lipstick. And if anyone calls you ugly, she says, tell them it's their mindset that's ugly. For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.