Directed by: Abhishek Chaubey; Written by: Sudip Sharma
Starring: Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor, Diljit Dosanjh
Udta Punjab would go down as one of the most talked about movies from Bollywood even before it was actually screened, our own desi version of Passion of the Christ, if you will. So instead of delving on the entire saga from CBFC’s preposterous treatment of the film for so-called “profanities and mature content” (I didn’t know Udta Punjab was a pioneering film in this regard, but let’s stay politically correct, shall we) to the controversial leak at the time of release, let’s instead review the film itself for a change.
Stripped from all controversy, Udta Punjab at its core is a raw, visceral, bold film depicting the drug menace that has engulfed the Punjab youth. It tackles the issue through 3 intertwining story arcs, looked from the perspective of the consumer, the social influencer, the political and law enforcer and the healer.
The social influencer is Tommy “Gabru” Singh (a high octane performance from Shahid Kapoor), who is a not so subtle reference to the artists in the Punjabi hip-hop music scene. Tommy snorts cocaine as a necessary “fuel” to rev up his “land rover” as he sings hip-hop with lyrics filled with innuendoes relating to drugs and sex (at a point of time he combines both while singing “coke-cock, cock-coke” in the Studio). At other times, during his many rave parties, he would be found in the bathroom floor, nostrils flaring with coke, staring at his reflection at the commode flush (a resemblance to Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting just as he is about to take a dip in the public commode to recover his suppositories), shouting “Who’s the Gabru?”, Tommy Singh’s reference to the real life Punjabi rapper couldn’t have been any more obvious. He is supported by a street-smart uncle Tayaji (Satish Kaushik in a small but perfectly executed role speaking chaste Punjabi) who knows how to monetise his nephew’s sudden spurt in popularity among the collective consciousness of the youth. However, Tommy’s love for the white powder and its consequences reaches a crescendo, resulting in him getting arrested by the police with instructions from the Govt., as a public shaming for wrongly influencing the youth. It is in prison that Tommy’s drug induced bubble is burst when he sees that his songs and projected lifestyle have led some of the youth to shocking extremes.
The consumer and law enforcer come together when Assistant Inspector Sartaj Singh (played with the right mix of restraint by Diljit Dosanjh as one of the sober characters in the film, in contrast to the hyper dynamic portrayals by Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt), who until then was turning a blind eye to the drugs racquet and allowing unhindered transportation of narcotics as long as the cops get a cut, realises to his horror that his younger brother is one of the victims of his own ignorance.
The 2 male leads have an epiphany which awakens their conscience as they decide to alter their course of action. While Tommy tries (ironically while himself being in a drug induced trance) in a failed attempt to communicate to the youth just how “fuddu” they are for interpreting his drug loving songs as some sort of hip philosophy (culminating in the only scene that was actually cut from the movie), Sartaj on the other hand, gets influenced by Preet (Kareena Kapoor) a doctor cum activist who plays the dual role of treating drug patients (including Sartaj’s ailing brother) and running campaigns against drugs. She convinces Sartaj to take matters into his own hands to uncover the source of the drug racquet.
However, none of the male leads have as quite an emotionally draining experience and drug induced trauma as the unnamed Bihari migrant worker who has come to Punjab in hopes of a better future, played superbly by Alia Bhatt in what is probably the movie’s strongest performance. After Highway, Alia continues to surprise with the depth of her acting; she is like the Jennifer Lawrence of the Indian film industry, while she seems airy headed outside cinema, she keeps revealing a new layer in her acting repository when facing the moving camera. Playing a completely unglamorous role (which would probably have been rejected by other Bollywood actresses among her peers for fear of tarnishing their screen image) she brings out a performance that is both raw, gritty and vulnerable at the same time. An aspiring hockey player with limited means, Alia Bhatt’s character tries to make ends meet as a contract labourer working in the farms, when one night her life is thrown topsy-turvy when she comes across a bag of cocaine which has been thrown from across the border (a nice little sequence that comes at the film’s beginning). Being blinded by the possibility of making quick money, she gets entangled within the web of the drug mafia. In this time, she experiences living hell while subjected to drugs and used for other’s pleasure. In one of her attempts to escape, she comes upon Tommy Singh, also on the run after being rejected violently by his audience. The 2 make an unlikely pairing which provides a lovely blend of dark comedy and pathos. In Alia Bhatt’s character, Tommy finds a chance to redeem himself.
Probably the weaker pairing is between Sartaj and Preet as they embark on a vigilante style operation to uncover the crux of the narco trade. The chemistry between them seems contrived and in a film with flawed but intriguing characters, Kareena’s character turns out to be, in Sartaj’s own words, too “perfect”. They make a good pair as long as they focus only on their operation, uncovering layers as they find out just how deeply entrenched the narco trade truly is in Punjab, where the money flows from the local drug dealers right up to the top.
The film can be broken down into 2 halves either side of the interval, while the 1st half was truly flying with its heady mix of drugs, music, sleaze, violence tempered with the social angle (a Trainspotting with a more evident social message if you will), the 2nd half was unable to keep up with the rollicking 1st half, occasionally reverting to Bollywood clichés and Deus ex Machina scenarios. But the 2nd half does have its moments right till the end, not least the interaction between Shahid and Alia or the bold depiction of the deep rooted malaise of narco politics, culminating in a controversial revelation which probably was the primary reason for the witch hunt conducted by the Censor Board on the movie, rather than its depiction of drugs and violence (which to be honest is no more than other Hindi movies of our time, like Gangs of Wasseypur). But I digress.
In his 3rd venture, Abhishek Chaubey does a solid job donning the director’s cap; however, with its blend of raw, gritty depiction and black humour one can feel the influence of Anurag Kashyap in the movie. Another aspect of the film worthy of praise is the highly inventive soundtrack. Amit Trivedi provides lyrics filled with innuendoes while Benedict Taylor provides an energetic high octane score. Not since Gangs of Wasseypur have we got a risqué soundtrack which almost feels like a character in the film.
While Udta Punjab at times seems to reference acclaimed films like Trainspotting, it adds its own worth by taking the challenging task of depicting the drug problem through the involvement of all the major stakeholders, not just the consumers, and in doing so presents a bigger collage of society. A commercial film such as this deserves kudos for such an effort. The film could have done with a more taut script but may be pardoned when it constantly has to switch between several intertwining story arcs. The film could have also easily fallen victim to showing a peripheral view of the drug menace by sticking to confused teenagers snorting coke or having an overdose of cool drug induced scenes of Tommy Singh doing psychedelic hip hop. But, as the film subtly indicates, people like Tommy Singh are only a façade to a deeper social problem, a convenient face to blame while the truly vested powers stay in the background. Also, unlike emotionally shattering drug films like Requiem for a Dream, Udta Punjab strives to remain optimistic without becoming downright corny. When we see Alia Bhatt fighting against drug withdrawal symptoms, we can feel the visceral pain. But amidst the pain, there always seems to be the chance of redemption, the light flashing within a sea of corruption as a beacon of hope. It is apt that the film literally ends with a scene of Alia Bhatt swimming in the ocean, as she metaphorically cleanses herself of past mistakes and swims towards some shining light in the distance.
A solid effort, Udta Punjab may have fallen short of becoming the cult classic of our time, but while aiming for the stars, it at least got the moon.
My rating: 3.5/5
(a self-proclaimed cinephile)