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A Bollywood Star Takes on a Global Stigma

Deepika Padukone, one of the highest-paid and best-known actresses in Bollywood, can afford to choose her roles carefully and with purpose. With her newest film — the first she has produced — she chose to make a statement about acid attacks in India.

“Chhapaak,” which was released on Jan. 10 in India and select cities around the world, is based on the life of Laxmi Agarwal, who was attacked in New Delhi in 2005 by a man whose advances she had spurned. Since then, Ms. Agarwal, 29, has become an activist; she has pushed the Supreme Court of India to regulate the sale of acid and Parliament to make it easier to prosecute acid attack perpetrators.

Acid attacks are on the rise in many countries and affect women disproportionately, according to Acid Survivors Trust International. India alone recorded close to 300 attacks in 2016, but the true number was probably much higher. The stigma of acid attacks is a form of social banishment, bringing a second and longer-lasting wave of trauma to survivors.

“The attacker is attacking you once. But society attacks you every time, in every moment,” said Ms. Agarwal in an interview, reflecting on her path to activism. She suffered burns mostly on her face, and has undergone seven reconstructive surgeries, all while enduring taunts about who would marry her and how she would ever achieve success in life. At her lowest moment, she said, she realized: “A crime has happened to me. I didn’t commit the crime. So why should I sit quietly?”

After hiding her face in public for eight years, Ms. Agarwal began a different kind of coming out. She filed a police report against her attacker, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison — a rarity in India. She pushed lawmakers to restrict the sale of acid (including the kinds most commonly used in these attacks, hydrochloric and sulfuric) and became the director of Chhanv Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping acid attack survivors. In 2014, she was honored at the White House by the former first lady Michelle Obama. Much of her journey is recounted in the movie, which fictionalizes Ms. Agarwal’s story but adheres to the heart of its substance.

The script, which had been turned into a screenplay by the director Meghna Gulzar, caught Ms. Padukone’s eye immediately. In 2018 she was finishing up filming for two period dramas, and looking for something emotionally lighter. But Ms. Agarwal’s story was too compelling. (Ms. Padukone has been in dozens of Indian films but may be best known in the U.S. for starring alongside Vin Diesel in the 2017 movie “XXX: Return of Xander Cage.”)

“It’s not very often where you know in literally a couple of minutes that this is a movie you want to commit to,” Ms. Padukone said, “where reading through the first few pages, you’re like, ‘Boom, this is it, and I want to do this.’”

She saw real beauty and heroism in the storytelling.

“As much as the movie will talk about acid violence,” Ms. Padukone said, it is also about what women “have made of their lives after having been through something like this, which in my mind, it is about grit and determination and spirit.”

Ms. Gulzar, the director, saw the film as a way to highlight the legal, financial and social struggles of acid attack survivors in a joyful way. She cast real survivors of acid assaults and let the camera rest just as lovingly on their faces as it does upon the main character, called Malti. “They have overcome their trauma, they have accepted the face that looks back at them in the mirror,” Ms. Gulzar said. “It’s time to accept them, to meet their gaze. They don’t have that hesitation. We do. We need to overcome it.”

“It’s a film that will inherently lend itself to extremely graphic visuals and yet it is a story you want people to know and come and see,” Ms. Gulzar said. “You don’t want them to turn away because they’re afraid of what they might get to see.”

During the early stages of the film, when the crew was trying to get the right look, they spent four to five hours a day on Ms. Padukone’s prosthetic makeup. The actress had her own realization as she watched her face change. “When I looked at myself in the mirror, I felt like myself,” she said.

Ms. Agarwal sees this as the key to ending the stigma, and perhaps curbing the attacks themselves. “If beauty was important, maybe you wouldn’t be talking to me,” she said. “When I came out, people didn’t know me from my face, they knew me from my strength. That’s beauty.”

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