Portraying the horror of an acid attack presents a challenge for any filmmaker. But Chasni (Sugar Syrup), which won Best Short Animation Film at the Indian Film Festival in Melbourne held in May, deals with the difficult subject powerfully, without once depicting the violence.
Abhishek Verma, a 26-year-old student of animation and film design at Mumbai’s Indian Institute of Technology, had no idea what his debut film would be about until one morning last year when he opened up the newspaper and read about Preeti Rathi, a young nurse who had moved from New Delhi to Mumbai for her first job.
Rathi had just arrived in Mumbai for the first time in April 2013. As she got off the train, a masked man threw acid at her face. He turned out to be her New Delhi neighbour, who later confessed to the police that he was acting from unrequited love. Six weeks later, Rathi was dead.
“I couldn’t get the inhumanity of it out of my mind,” says Verma. “I read that because her lungs and mouth were damaged, she couldn’t speak to her family and so she wrote notes instead, telling them she was worried about how her parents would pay for her treatment and asking: ‘Is my face ruined?’ The image of those notes made me want to make a movie.”
Verma chose not to portray the violence. Instead, his film focuses on the aftermath and the psychological trauma it causes, poignantly depicting a young woman who doesn’t want to leave her home because of the unwanted attention and gossip she draws whenever she steps outside.
The five-minute film, comprising a series of monochromatic pencil sketches, begins with the sari-clad woman about to make a cup of chai. She puts sugar and water in a saucepan, then realises she has run out of tea. She goes out to the shops, but is overwhelmed by the neighbours’ stares and whispering, and returns without the tea. At home, she ponders over her victimisation while drinking the sugar syrup she settles for instead of tea.
In India, between 2010 and 2012, 225 acid attacks were reported. These hate crimes usually
target women; the perpetrators tend to be men who are unable to cope with rejection and are bent on revenge.
One of the women Verma met while conducting research for his film was Laxmi (she goes by one name). In 2005, a young man threw acid on her face while she waited at a bus stop in Khan Market in New Delhi. She was only 16. In what is now a familiar tale, the attacker – her brother’s 32-year-old friend – said he did it to punish her for rejecting him.
Verma says his friends convinced him to submit the film in the animated short films category in Melbourne's Indian Film Festival. Chasni also received a nomination at last month's World Festival of Animated Film in Zagreb, Croatia.
Laxmi now works with Stop Acid Attacks, an NGO that campaigns against the crime and helps survivors. The organisation has started screening the film during fundraising campaigns and awareness drives. Laxmi has become the face of the movement and in March she travelled to the United States, where the first lady, Michelle Obama, presented her with the International Women of Courage Award.
“Chasni is a simple but hard-hitting film,” says Laxmi. “And it explains how harsh society can be, by making us suffer all over again.”