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Chhapaak: The Prominence of Acid Attacks in UK

Chhapaak promises to be a brave and empowering film by Meghna Gulzar which draws attention to acid attack survivors.

Starring Deepika Padukone as Malti, it aims to be the hard-hitting story of a woman who overcomes a horrific acid attack.

In 2016, 206 acid attacks were recorded, according to figures from India’s National Crime Record Bureau.

In most cases, women were attacked for the refusal of advances from men.

However, acid attacks are genderless crimes which are not solely limited to India.

As such, London has emerged as one of the worst areas, with more than half of incidents within the country taking place in the capital.

In a special feature, Filme Shilmy reflects on why Chhapaak exceeds from being just a Bollywood film as acid attacks are rampant in Britain.

Chhapaak: Based on Survivor Laxmi Agarwal

Chhapaak is based on Laxmi Agarwal’s ordeal.

Hailing from Delhi, Laxmi was only 15-years-old when a man threw corrosive liquid on her face in 2005.

She was on her way from her music class when a man who was twice her age threw acid on her for rejecting his advances. The incident led her face and other body parts disfigured.

Although she received treatment on time, in a span of 10 years, she went through many surgeries, which almost affected her mental health.

But with her courage and determination, Laxmi took up life’s challenge and manage to stand back on her feet.

As such, she even managed to get her perpetrators punished.

Consequently, she gathered 27,000 signatures on a petition citing to curb acid sales and filed a PIL seeking new law or amendment in present law which deals with these offences, besides asking to give compensation.

She also pleaded for a total ban on the sale of acid, citing an increase in acid attack numbers across the nation.

It was not until 2013 when Laxmi’s struggle paid off after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Laxmi plea, thereby creating a fresh set of restrictions on the sale of acid.

She along with others started a hunger strike demanding immediate justice and rehabilitation for acid attack survivors.

Whilst this occurred in India, where such incidents happen frequently (and mainly) on women, the crime is equally prominent amidst both genders in the UK.

The UK’s Major Increase in Acid Attacks Since 2012

Metro cites that Britain has one of the highest rates of acid attacks per capita in the world, according to Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI).

The number of reported acid attack incidents has drastically increased from 228 in 2012 to 601 attacks in 2016.

According to the Metropolitan Police and The Sun newspaper:

Unlike in other countries, where 80 per cent of acid attacks are against women, in the UK most victims are men.

As per media reports, motives behind such horrific acts appear to be gang-driven, but in many cases, it seems more like a malicious way to get revenge by envious, ego-hurt love interests.

For instance, on July 27, 2017, Daniel Rotariu, 31, was left blinded and scarred for life after acid was poured over his eyes as he slept at Katie Leong’s home in Leicester.

She co-ordinated the attack after her lodger boyfriend of the time rejected her advances. Leong was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 17 years for the attack.

But gender aside, the ‘revenge’ cases are not just limited to ordinary people. Even public figures have endured such atrocious crimes.

For example, as far back as 2008, TV presenter Katie Piper underwent 40 operations to treat her burns.

She was attacked by a man taking orders from her jealous ex Daniel Lynch in North London.

Lynch is serving a life sentence and Sylvestre, who carried out the horrifying attack on Lynch’s orders was released from prison last year.

2017: The Worst Year for Acid Attacks

With more than 400 incidents reported in the six months, 2017 was widely regarded as the worst ever year for acid attacks.

One of the most prolific cases is that of Cousins Jameel Mukhtar and aspiring model Resham Khan – who was celebrating her 21st birthday.

On 21 June 2017, Muhktar and Khan were sitting in a stationary car stopped at traffic lights on Tollgate Road, Beckton.

A white male approached and threw a corrosive liquid onto them.

Both suffered severe burns with their injuries described by the Metropolitan Police as “life-changing”.

Khan needed skin grafts to her face and body whilst Mukhtar suffered wounds to his stomach, face, neck, ears, arms and back requiring extensive surgery.

Muhktar described his clothes and shoes melting following the attack.

Initially, the police investigated the incident as a hate crime and the victims believe the incident represented rising Islamophobia in the United Kingdom.

However, the judge concluded that there was no evidence of racial motivation

The perpetrator was John Tomlin and he was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment in April 2018.

After Resham was left badly scarred in a horrific acid attack in London, she last year shared a picture showing her amazing recovery one year on.

She told the Evening Standard: “I’ve come a long way” and since been able to get on with her life, including setting up her own business and making travel plans.

New Law Amendments

After seeing a vast surge in such heinous crimes, the government seems to have drawn their attention towards illegal possession of acid.

Since November 2018, it is a criminal offence for members of the public to possess sulphuric acid above 15% concentration without a licence, with offenders facing a 2-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine.

“Any article made or adapted for causing injury… Or intended for such use” while a highly dangerous weapon can include corrosive substances whose risk goes “substantially above and beyond.”

The court must determine whether the weapon is highly dangerous on the facts and circumstances of the case,” the Sentencing Council highlights.

Major retailers have signed up to a voluntary ban on sales of dangerous products to under-18s.

The Home Office has proposed separate new laws that could bring in punishments for anyone carrying corrosive substances without “a good or lawful reason” and restrict purchases.

New aggravating factors include the “deliberate humiliation” of victims, including filming them or circulating material on social media and judges will take into account the defendant’s age, maturity, peer pressure or an “unstable upbringing”.

Overall, such attacks can have a long-term physical and psychological impact on an individual.

Whilst many of the perpetrators (which are explored in this article) have been given lengthy sentences, it begs the question as to how effective these punishments really are.

As such, the coming days will be a huge indicator as to how impactful and helpful this new amendment will be.

Most importantly, it is pivotal to see how effective will this new crackdown be in preventing further acid attacks in Britain.

So why is Chhapaak Relevant?

Slowly and steadily, Bollywood has paved a way into the British viewers’ hearts.

As such, western audiences have become aware of the popular ‘commercial’ space in Hindi cinema, typically for the larger-than-life dances, exuberant costumes and colour.

However, Chhapaak marks a change in the definition of ‘commercial’ because it is not a stereotypical ‘naach gaana’ movie.

It promises to be a serious story about an acid attack survivor – which presents the mainstream actor Deepika Padukone in an authentic and courageous role.

Plus, the fact that Padukone herself overcame depression and launched a foundation on raising awareness and helping others, it only makes her more apt for the character. 

Speaking about this never-seen-before avatar, co-star Vikrant Massey tells Filme Shilmy:

“Trust me, in this film, there is more than the idea of being just ‘Deepika Padukone’ – I can definitely vouch for that.

Here, we are talking about a woman who has gone through this disastrous and grim episode in her life and how strongly she comes out of it is an example of people to seek/relate with it.

I hope people enjoy watching the film and learn from it.”

Given that there are many acid attack survivors (of both genders) in the UK, seeing an inspiring, hopeful narrative could just make an optimistic difference in our world.

Perhaps this film could give the extra strength to survivors and society as a whole, that no matter what happens in life, we can overcome every obstacle.

Chhapaak releases on January 2020.  

If you or a loved one has been affected by the issues related to acid attacks, there are organisations that can help: Changing Faces, The Katie Piper Foundation and Let’s Face It, amongst others.

Alternatively, you can also call ‘Victim Support’ on the 24/7 number 0808 16 89 111. 

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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