Deepika Padukone is set to play the acid attack survivor and activist Laxmi Agarwal in Meghna Gulzar’s upcoming film.
The protests of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, which released in January amid huge controversy, madeDeepika subject to heinous harassment. The hate campaign went as far as suggesting that people who were daring enough to chop off her nose or dismember her feet would be given a cash prize. She felt at that time that men become insidious in their expression of hate and aggression and that this issue needs to be thoroughly addressed in our society. Meghna Gulzar, the director of the project is also known to focus on meaningful stories and impactful projects. Her last project, Raazi proved to be a big success. Deepika has embraced her socially conscious streak taking a break from commercial masala movies. She appeared on Amir Khan’s Satyamav Jayte to talk about the sexist depiction of heroines in Bollywood as well as her advocacy to remove mental health stigmas.
This story has also managed to not only inspire Deepika but had also led her to invest as a producer.
“When I heard this story, I was deeply moved as it’s not just one of violence but of strength and courage, hope and victory. It made such an impact on me, that personally and creatively, I needed to go beyond and so the decision to turn producer,”
Laxmi was attacked by a 32-year-old man Gudda, his alias Naeem Khan whose advances she had rejected after he had sent her a marriage proposal. She was attacked in 2005 at age 15 and since then she has been working for acid victims across India. She has diligently advocated against acid attacks through gathering 27,000 signatures for a petition to curb acid sales, and taking that cause to the Indian Supreme Court. Her petition has led the Supreme Court to order to order the regulation of the sale of acid.
Laxmi is the director of Chanv Foundation, an NGO dedicated to helping the survivors of acid attacks in India and potentially elsewhere as well. She was one of the first women who received a 2014 International Women of Courage award by US First Lady Michelle Obama and also chosen as the NDTV’s Indian of the Year receiving multiple awards in India for her work to curb the sale of acid and to rehabilitate the survivors of acid attacks through her foundation. Starting her own campaign titled #StopSaleAcid.
She is said to be in dire straits at the moment due to extensive activism and lack of employment opportunities. Facing possible eviction from her home as well because that is the perpetual fate of most dedicated activists. She has sold the filmmaking rights of her life to a Bollywood production house and will participate in the editing process of the whole movie. She will be getting the final say.
Lakshmi was reportedly in a relationship with another well- respected social activist Alok Dixit who continues to fight for India’s Internet freedom. They have gone their separate ways soon after the birth of their daughter. Agarwal has sole custody and Dixit has not paid any expenses for his child.
“People believe that I must be well-off since I received so many awards, walked the ramps, gave talks – but I have no money to meet even my basic needd. I have no money. I just don’t. You can check my bank account and it doesn’t even have Rs 5000. This is how we activists live. I don’t have a regular job and all the money that my NGO gets is spent in taking care of acid attack survivors.”
Besides unemployment Laxmi has been unable to secure proper living conditions due to a hostile an discouraging society, “It’s not easy, she says. Potential landlords don’t want their kids to get scared by my disfigured face”. Agarwal is also looking for a job. “I am educated till the 10th standard, but am a trained beautician and can communicate well. But my face becomes a hurdle when I ask for any job at any beauty parlour, as they say that customers will get scared of my looks. I applied at a call centre and told them that the customers wouldn’t see my face, but they replied that ‘to get a job, I need to have a face, to begin with.”
Activists say that Agarwal’s situation is hardly unique. According to them, the close- to-500 acid attack survivors in India get sympathy, but little monetary help. “There is only so much money that gets spent on multiple corrective surgeries. Laxmi received Rs 3 lakh in compensation from the government after a Supreme Court order for her assailant to pay up, but much more went in her surgeries. She received a lot of praise and recognition when she received an award from Michelle Obama, but her award money was not enough.
“In India, people are willing to give awards, not money.”
The acid attack survivor hosted a few episodes of a TV show. She has also walked the ramp at London Fashion Week in 2016, to encourage acid victims to embrace their light. “The channel paid me Rs 38,000 for a few episodes. I felt appreciated, as they chose me over pretty anchors. I never got any payment at London Fashion Week, though. I do get invites to walk the ramp for Delhi designers but since there is no payment involved, I have stopped taking part in shows. I have a child to take care of and I need a permanent source of livelihood,” says Agarwal.
More recently though, the silver lining has shone through for Laxmi, who has become elated at the pre-production ideation of a film based on her life.
Even Meghna Gulzar its director has commented, “I was instinctively convinced that Deepika would do justice to the character and the story. Also, her physicality matched with what I’d imagined for Laxmi’s character. I’m grateful and encouraged that she was so spontaneous in her decision to do the film. When you take a face as beautiful as hers and portray her as an acid attack survivor, the magnitude of the violence and damage is much more resounding,”