The Indian drama “Chhapaak” succeeds in balancing extremes. It is at once a pleasing and buoyant inspirational story, and a realistic depiction of the brutal aftermath of acid attacks.

  • The base of the movie.

The movie is based on the life of the activist Laxmi Agarwal, who was burned with acid in New Delhi 2005, and has since become an advocate for banning the sale of acid in India. Details like names and ages have been changed, but the substance of Agarwal’s story remains the same.

Deepika Padukone plays Malti, a young woman who is assaulted by a family friend, after she rejects his romantic advances. In flashbacks, she recalls the crime and her arduous recovery; in the present, she takes a job helping other survivors and, with a team of female lawyers, tries to change Indian law to reflect the seriousness of the violence committed against her.

  • The beautiful mind of the director.

The director Meghna Gulzar takes a light approach to this heavy subject, using familiar stylistic flourishes to soften the story. Though there are no staged musical numbers, the score includes several songs, with the first introduced in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Malti. The music draws the story into the heightened, emotionally manageable space of melodrama, an approach that remains consistent throughout. There are scenes of anguish, but the film doesn’t make a spectacle of pain. And as Malti, Padukone is by turns inquisitive, watchful and serene but never maudlin.

The visual effects used to represent Malti’s burns are a rather extraordinary mix of makeup and prosthetics, which subtly change as she receives treatments. Gulzar has also cast real survivors of acid assaults and the camera rests just as plainly on their faces as it does upon Malti’s. Gulzar emphasizes the dignity of survivors and the joy that exists even after devastating injury. Many of the most moving scenes feature Malti and real survivors playing and fantasizing about future treatments, their faces lit up not in pain but in laughter.