There is nothing quite as entertaining as a good controversy. And if this controversy involves Bollywood and the Government, you can be sure of the news channels having their fill of this TRP fodder until the movie finally releases (Or if it does, in most cases). Abhishek Chaubey, who made most viewers sit up and take notice with a crackling debut in Ishqiya, and followed it up with Dedh Ishqiya, a sequel that outshone the original, moves away from the badlands of Uttar Pradesh into the lush green fields of Punjab, and shows us the underbelly of the drug mafia that seems to have eaten away at the Punjabi youth and in the process, drives away in the opposite direction of the Yash Chopra school of filmmaking. But, is Udta Punjab a piece of mediocre cinema trying to stay in the limelight through a never-ending stream of controversies, or is it truly that subversive piece of mainstream cinema that has the censor board frothing at the mouth?
Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is a coke-snorting Punjabi rapper whose erratic behaviour has resulted in his financial backers reaching the end of their tether and pulling out their hair in frustration. Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) is a young policeman learning the ropes of how to manipulate the system under his worldlier cousin Jujhar Singh (Manav Vij) until the drug mafia strikes a little too close for comfort. Dr Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor) is a young doctor in charge of a state run de-addiction centre, frustrated by the reach of the drug malaise in the state and doing her bit to save lives, ravaged by the same. And in the middle of all this is a young Bihari migrant (Alia Bhatt) who comes across a stash of smuggled heroin, and tries to make money off the same and rise above her poverty stricken existence, only to end up being caught right in the middle of a drug cartel’s machinations.
From the first frame, it is quite evident that Chaubey means business here and is not in the mood to indulge latecomers with filler material till they settle down in their seats. Right from the first shot, that shows the smuggling of the consignment that kicks off the plot till the last frame, that tells us about the fate of the characters, he keeps a vice like grip on the proceedings that only slackens a bit in the second half. The detailing is meticulous, the writing is tight and the plot is absolutely gripping without any loose ends for the most part. The only flaw here being a slightly bloated second half, which could do with 5-10 minutes being chopped off for a much harder impact. The cinematography by Malayalam auteur, Rajeev Ravi and editing by Meghna Sen ensure that this is a top notch product that captures the Mordor like sinister milieu of modern day Punjab perfectly enough to induce dread among audiences. Add to this, Amit Trivedi’s pulsating soundtrack, and you have a fine bit of filmmaking indeed.
Shahid Kapoor bounces back from the debacle of Shaandaar with an absolutely fine performance here, as the slightly unhinged coke-addled popstar Tommy. The self loathing masked by manic energy is brought out perfectly. Diljit Dosanjh, the rising star of Punjabi Cinema makes a damn fine debut in Bollywood, with a dignified portrayal of a young cop at the crossroads, reining in his emotions to seek justice. Kareena Kapoor as the idealistic doctor looks as luminous as ever, but suffers from an underwritten part, that only involves her channeling Geet from Jab We Met, and lacks bite. Alia Bhatt however pitches in with what one might call a career defining performance as the Bihari migrant trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation. She gets every bit of her character right, be it the accent, the look (almost unrecognizable) or the body language (Impeccable). Manav Vij, Prabhjot Singh and Satish Kaushik bring up the rear with fine performances, with Vij especially nailing the character of Sartaj’s more practical cousin Jujhar.
Controversy aside, Udta Punjab is a must watch, for a simple reason that it combines compelling characters, with a gripping storyline and tops it off with just the right amount of realism without getting too bleak.