Interview Hindi

We chose Chhapaak because it would be easier for the title song: Meghna Gulzar

Director Meghna Gulzar speaks of her journey from Filhaal (2002) to Chhapaak, setting aside her anger to work on the story of Malti, and why she wanted the title to make a splash.

Shriram Iyengar

Following the success of Raazi (2018) starring Alia Bhatt, Meghna Gulzar is riding a wave. Her next will see another top actress, Deepika Padukone, shed the glamour to play an acid-attack survivor, Malti, in Chhapaak.

With the film set for release on 10 January, the director sat down for a conversation about the project. "I felt that if these incidents are happening with such frequency, why is there not such discussion or information on why this is happening, that was the starting point," she said. 

The film, coming on the back of the super hit Raazi, has another major star in the lead. Speaking of Padukone, Meghna said, "Extremely hands-on and extremely supportive. She is also very very ambitious. When an actor does your film, they are a validation that someone recognized your intent. But when they join you as a producer, it doubles that sense of validation."

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But it is the story of the film's title that explains the practicality and poetic sensibilities of Meghna Gulzar. The film was initially named Gandhak (Hindi for sulphuric acid), but Meghna said, "I could not demand so much from Papa [lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar] to create a song around Gandhak (laughs). That's when we thought of Chhapaak! It is the phonetic sound of a splash. It suited us lyrically."

Following are excerpts from the interaction.

What led you to make this film on an acid-attack survivor?

We were looking for subjects post-Talvar (2015). This was back in 2015-16, and since Talvar was based on a real-life story, we thought we would take a story from real life again. Then I had not imagined that Raazi would get made.

At a time like that, when you open your radar to learn what is happening in society and the world, the news articles carried these stories of acid attacks with regular frequency. I felt that if these incidents are happening with such frequency, why is there not such discussion or information on why this is happening. That was the starting point.

When you speak of acid violence and search, the first landmark case is that of Laxmi Agarwal. She is also the best-known acid-attack survivor. This gave me the idea to make her story the anchor and tell a story about acid violence. 

When you see these incidents, anger is a natural reaction. As a director, how do you set aside your anger and work through the story objectively?

I don't get angry. I get questions. I believe that if there is a problem in society, you have to find a solution to it. For that, you have to think about it deeply.

Was there a scene which was difficult to shoot for the film?

There were many. The scene of the actual attack was difficult. The moment when she sees her disfigured face for the first time in the mirror, that was difficult. These were emotionally difficult scenes.

Then, you have Deepika Padukone at a live location, in the markets of Delhi and small neighbourhoods where crowds swarm. There are 600 people in your frame, who will not move because they want to see her. That is another kind of difficulty (laughs).

I think the process or the story of a film, when it is difficult, demands more from you and the effort shows on the screen.

From Rani Padmavati to Malti in Chhapaak, how did you envision Deepika as the character?

Right when we were formulating the script. During our research, we went through old photographs of Laxmi Agarwal, and she looked similar to Deepika Padukone. They are very similar. Particularly the Deepika who was 20–22 years old is a physical match.

For me, that physical similarity between the character and the actor is very important. That was actually my starting point.

Was there another name envisioned for the film, aside from Chhapaak?

We had thought of another title, Gandhak, the Hindi name for sulphuric acid. I only knew that I wanted a powerful title. Often, a female director heading a female-oriented story led by a female star creates preconceived notions. To break those notions, I needed a strong title. I felt gandhak was a strong word. But I knew I also had to have a title song in my film, and gandhak is not the most lyrical word.

I could not demand so much from Papa to create a song around 'gandhak' (laughs). That's when we thought of Chhapaak. It is a phonetic sound of a splash. It suited us lyrically, but it has two layers. When you jump into water, that chhapaak is different. When the same splash occurs when someone throws acid, it becomes a different sound. That became a medium for me to tell the story.

The film also speaks, at least from the trailer, about inner beauty....

This is an audience perception, I suppose. We wanted to tell a story about acid violence. But if people do take away this lesson of inner beauty from it, it is our good fortune.

Films like these, based on real incidents, do require courage and careful handling. Did you feel emboldened by your earlier successes?

In a way, yes. When I made Talvar, it was the first time for me in this genre. Before that, I made soft, sentimental, fictional films. Although they had issues, the factors of true-life crime and investigations was a completely new world for me. I had fun doing it because to overcome the difficulty, and the faith [writer-producer] Vishal [Bhardwaj] sir and Junglee Pictures had put in me, to redeem that was very important.

Filmmaking is not complex, stories are increasingly complicated. While writing the script, your imagination can take any leap of fancy. To execute it is the issue. You start seeing the challenges when you begin to break down the script for execution. That is a very inspiring process.

What is your process of writing the script?

I research a little on it myself, till I understand the subject completely. Talvar was the first time I had directed someone else's script. Writing is always a collaboration. I like that process. When you get together with a like-minded person and there is a creative exchange of ideas, the work moves faster and gives you a new perception.

Once I have a shell of the story, and how to tell it, I automatically know which writer to collaborate with. Once you bring the writer on board and present the world to them, the give-and-take starts.

Do you bother about what to keep out, or remove, when you work on real stories?

I don't do that when I am filming, let alone writing. Why should one do self-censorship when you are telling such real stories? The key is that if your intention is clear, then you won't go wrong in your treatment of the story.

Does it bother you that acid attacks continue to happen? What would you like the government to do to deal with these situations?

Making the film was my way of finding an answer to these questions. That's why I made it. Everything cannot be solved by a petition and making an issue. I do the same through a film. People will watch it, the government will also watch it, and maybe things will change with it.

How is Deepika Padukone as a producer?

Extremely hands-on and extremely supportive. She is also very very ambitious. When an actor does your film, they are a validation that someone recognized your intent. But when they join you as a producer, it doubles that sense of validation.

Vikrant Massey and Deepika Padukone with Meghna Gulzar on completion of filming

Has Laxmi Agarwal seen the film? What did she think of it?

She has seen the film, and she reacted just the way I wanted her to, or expected. That is very satisfying for me, and validating.

After Raazi and Talvar, is the pressure of a Meghna Gulzar film getting to you?

I don't consider it pressure, rather good fortune and privilege. If you didn't expect a good film after seeing my name in the credits, I would be disappointed. It is something I am grateful for, and I carry it as a responsibility to not disappoint audiences.

Your films have seen an interesting mix of leading men from Irrfan Khan and VIcky Kaushal to Vikrant Massey now. How does he fare?

The character is a North Indian boy who is an activist. Like I said, the physical fit of the character is important for me. Vikrant fit the mould. I wanted to work with him since I saw A Death In The Gunj (2017).

My film's lead characters are not in the hero-heroine mould. People end up liking them very much, whether it is Iqbal in Raazi, and [they] will also love Amol in Chhapaak. Getting someone that likeable is important.

Your leading men also carry a certain vulnerability. How does that fit in this story?

All men are like that. They are vulnerable in real life. They are lovable. As long as women write men, they will be vulnerable.

We all have a masculine and a feminine side. It depends which we tap, and for what reason.

What is special about this love story?

There is no hesitation. Neither from Malti nor from Amol. They don't hesitate because it is not love at first sight. Love at first sight depends on sight, perception of beauty. This is beyond that, and purer than that. That's why I like it more.

Deepika Padukone and Vikrant Massey in Chhapaak

Do you approach your father for suggestions for every script?

At the script level, when the first working draft is done, I leave a copy for him on which he scribbles his comments, suggestions or criticisms, whichever it is. Things I agree with, I accept. Things I don't agree with, I leave behind.

But then, when your script is done and your team is set up, that's the time the ideas truly flow. Every head of every department reads it, and everyone has their own opinions and perceptions. Their feedback and assistants' feedback are important. I believe filmmaking is a collaborative process. I am a funnel that channels and streamlines the energy of all these people into the project.

Have you ever approached your mother [veteran actress Rakhee] for any character in your films?

No, I haven't had a character like that so far. Even if I do, it has to justify her craft. It is not a must-do for me. I am also afraid that being with her on the set is not easy. How will I tell her that I need another take, I am not happy with this? (Laughs.)

Do you think about re-releasing films like Filhaal? Maybe the audience would receive it better today?

Possibly. But I think it does not matter. It is better to be ahead of the times or with the times than be outdated. Raazi and Talvaar, the journey of 15 years, would not be the way it is, or I would not be the filmmaker I am, if the journey of the past was not as it is. That is more important for me. I would not change anything.

What kind of change did you see through those years?

It was cyclical. There were times of weakness, when I thought I did not want to do this. A filmmaker's failure is exposed. It is not like writing a bad article, where your boss or a few comments criticize you. Our failures are much more public. We work on projects for two or three years, which is dismissed within three hours. Sometimes I felt I did not have the courage to do this again. Some days, I just could not stop myself from working on another script.

I did take time off when my son was born, and did not focus on any other thing.

Did you expect the success of Raazi?

Raazi went beyond any expectations we had.

Are there any other key subjects you are interested in working on?

Immediately after this I am going to start work on Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw's biopic, which is very important. The kind of person he was, the role model, is almost unknown to youngsters today. The society of today does need a principled, righteous and positive role model like him. That is the purpose of my choice of telling his story.

Vicky Kaushal as Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw

Are you working on any ventures for the digital platforms?

Yes, we are working on a script based on the life of former Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria's case files. The series is in the early development stages.