So, who was scared/wary of Udta Punjab and its supposedly ‘damaging content’?
When I saw the film today, midst all the surround sound and fury, this question kept coming to my mind every now and then – like how ‘hurt’ keeps coming back to haunt fragile Indian sentiments. Because an hour into the film and you realize that it has nothing, absolutely nothing that can damage the reputation of Punjab or the dwellers of that state. More importantly, the film never ever glorifies substance abuse, it rather showcases horrors of addiction in such a naked, brutal manner that even an average cigarette smoker (cigarette that contains only tobacco and nothing else) would also be shaken.
Also, Udta Punjab is perhaps the most metaphorically pleasing title to have come out of the Bollywood stable this year. From the very first scene of the film, when a discuss thrower from across the border hurls a pack of heroin in vast fields of Punjab to the final sequence where Tommy Singh aka Gabru (Shahid Kapoor) limps around in a pair of shoes that has wings on it, Udta Punjab beautifully justifies and boldly underlines its wisely chosen title.
Coming to the film – it has a deeply disturbing, almost shocking first half and a more filmy, flamboyant second half. To the credit of the director Abhishek Chaubey, the two halves and their varied narratives intertwine smoothly to create a cinematic impact that is bound to stay with you for some time. Udta Punjab also deserves applause for its deep-rooted research on the issue of drug abuse in Punjab and its uncompromising nature of highlighting the same.
A bit of common sense and some degree of general awareness would tell you that Punjab’s unfortunate tryst with narco-terror is an amalgamation of the powerful meeting the corrupt and exploiting the uncouth desires of a section of the gullible populace. The film shocks you with its unraveling of this narcotics nexus and leaves you deeply saddened when it viciously portrays the plight and compulsions of people who are addicted to various forms of drugs.
Udta Punjab also does perfect justice to all its four principal characters – a rare Hindi film where the entire lead ensemble gets to do roles that are well-proportioned and more importantly, well sketched out. Yet, Kareena Kapoor Khan’s turn as a doctor waging war against drug menace seems a little underwhelming compared to the other three. But, make no mistake that Kareena still shines in a role that delves in the danger of being sidelined. She gets the nuances of a righteous Punjabi doctor just right and her few but charming romantic moments with Diljit Dosanjh are an absolute treat.
Diljit, the Punjabi superstar with an affable smile, makes a solid debut in Hindi films by infusing sincerity and believability into the role of a Punjab police officer who opens up to the gravity of the situation only when tragedy befalls on his young teenage brother. You can clearly sense that Diljit has an endearing screen presence and a knack of underplaying his character – all signs of an able actor. Also in the fray and in top form is Shahid Kapoor as the drug-addict pop singer who cusses as much as he snorts up that white substance. Shahid is on fire, especially in the first half, where he comes up with near monstrous histrionics of a singer who raps ‘coke with cock’ and has tasted highs of success by being high all the time.
Shahid’s Tommy Singh is fierce, destructive, pitiable and on some occasions extremely funny. He is well-aided by the veteran Satish Kaushik who plays his manager-cum-uncle. The good old calendar cracks you up with his one-liners – most of them delivered in chaste Punjabi. Matching Shahid’s histrionics and at some places wonderfully overpowering him is that little powerhouse of talent called Alia Bhatt. The young actor shines yet again in a difficult role and even pulls off the Bihari accent without much fuss – all those overzealous open letters blaming her for stereotyping Bihari community be damned. Alia’s ordeals in the film, as a migrant Bihari laborer trapped in the narcotics tangle, is so harrowing that you are stunned and overawed. The fact that her character does not even has a name, is perhaps the most battered and brutalized, and yet emerges as a symbol of hope in the overall sordid proceedings establishes finesse of writing (Sudip Sharma and Chaubey himself) and the power of Alia’s superlative performance.
Udta Punjab’s narrative is inconsistent but not really problematic. From a documentary-like treatment in the first half to a more indulgent second half, Abhishek Chaubey proves that he can handle noir and narcissism with equal ease. However, the film’s little deviant behavior in the second half robs it of some sheen and makes it look lengthy and wandering. At more than two and half hours, Udta Punjab does make you restless a bit but the content on offer is so absorbing that you never lose interest in the proceedings.
The film also has a few other half-baked areas. Shahid and Alia’s romantic track looks somewhat forced and the former’s eventual de-addiction from drugs is somewhat unrealistic. The film’s climax is also quite unusual and can come across as either no-nonsense or a tad too ambitious and convenient. But, you cannot discount the fact that the director manages to surprise you with a couple of neat twists towards the end.
Udta Punjab makes for a worthy trip also because of Amit Trivedi’s solid compositions and a roaring background score by Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar. From the signature honking of trucks in the background to the foot-tapping title song and Chitta Ve to the extremely melodious Ikk Kudi, the film is an aural treat at so many levels.
Overall, Udta Punjab is a stirring, disturbing film that has suitable doses of narrative grandiosity. At its core lies a very sincere attempt to decode and highlight a problem that is threatening to engulf an entire generation of youngsters in Punjab. This is a film that you should watch in theaters to get aware, alarmed and entertained. And also to prove a point to those few who tried to mess with your right to watch a film in its original, unadulterated form.
By the way, help me find an answer to my initial question – who was scared/wary of Udta Punjab and its supposedly ‘damaging content’?
Rating: ***1/2 (Very Good)