Deepika Padukone, one of India's most beautiful and celebrated movie stars, has gone through arduous prosthetics to don the persona of an acid attack survivor in a movie being released next month. While the visual reality of acid attacks could make viewers gasp at the devastating disfigurement and suffering, the movie is said to showcase courage, spirit and dreams. Survivor Laxmi Agarwal, the inspiration for the story, hopes the movie will help remove some of the 'acid' from the minds of the perpetrators and society.
Acid attack survivors suffer acute physical and mental trauma, as their face - their identity - is changed beyond repair. And that's only part of the pain: society ostracizes the victim, not the criminal! Laxmi, now an articulate activist, talks about friends and family shunning her when she returned after 10 traumatic weeks in hospital; neighbors told her parents it was better if she had died. Her attacker on the other hand, retained his social stature despite his crime and had the nerve to get married.
Overall, the social attitude is toxic. It is not unusual for acid survivors to be abandoned by their own parents.
"My face has changed, not my dreams"
Support organizations have very weighty tasks: apart from funding for complicated and extended treatment they have to give complete support to help survivors smile again.
Behind that tortured face is a person with desires, dreams and capabilities. And meeting a survivor can change one's life.
Beautician Masarrat Misbah's view of beauty changed one day when a young girl drew her veil back and asked her to 'fix' her face: "She was a girl without a face. One eye was missing, her nose was a hole..." She was impelled to launch a non-profit, which manages funding, treatment and thereafter employment for survivors. Similarly, young Ria Sharma found her calling when she met up with acid attack survivors as part of her college project. Ria's subsequent non-profit has been a path changer for survivors, with its focus on education and rehabilitation.
Models of courage
"We are not survivors but fighters" is the refrain among most survivors. And they are not shying away from the public eye. They have held audiences spellbound with their courage at TEDx talks, TV interviews and many other public forums.
Indian role models like Laxmi and Reshma Qureshi have walked the catwalk at London Fashion Week and New York Fashion week respectively. Reshma was the face for an awareness campaign that won the Gold Lion award at Cannes. The Sheroes Cafes in two Indian cities are run by salaried survivors who cook nifty snacks, serve and chat with the guests. In Lahore, Pakistan, survivors confidently give beauty treatment to customers at the Duplex Smile Again salon. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, nursing other survivors has become a natural and remunerative vocation.
For these acid attack fighters, empowerment is everything.
See on screen: CHHAPAK
Read this book: Make Love Not Scars by Ria Sharma
Inspiration for a movie
People with mission
Models of courage