Within the first few minutes of Udta Punjab, it becomes quite clear as to why a section of the political class wanted the film banned. And why their opponents wanted it released. In the course of one headily written and performed song when the titles appear, the drug menace of Punjab becomes crystal clear. And the rather absurd attempts to censor/ban the film start making sense. But even without the political angle – that surely peaked curiosity in the film – Udta Punjab is a sometimes soaring, mostly gut-wrenching film.
Four stories come together. A cop (Diljit Dosanjh) on the payrolls of the drug mafia, for whom the menace hits home suddenly. A lady doctor (Kareena Kapoor Khan) fighting a losing battle to treat and rehabilitate addicts. A Bihari migrant labourer (Alia Bhatt) who gets sucked into the cesspool through a coincidence. And a popstar (Shahid Kapur) who can’t compose or perform without the highs.
Alia is brilliant in her performance that has a fairly radical physical transformation as well. Shahid plays the over-the-top buffoon with aplomb, replicating some of the raw physical energy we saw in Haider. Diljit Dosanjh doesn’t have scope for too much of a performance but his looks and poise indicate why he is a major star in Punjab. Kareena has a somewhat angelic, moral-high-ground kind of role and comes across as the only unreal character in the mix.
The character actors – Diljit’s brother Balli, his ruthless boss, Satish Kaushik as Shahid’s manager/uncle, Shahid’s cousin – are all superb, getting the accent, body language and sensibilities down pat.
What works for Udta Punjab is the complete absence of sugarcoating in showing the scary lives of the protagonists. The brutality of the mafia is unnerving and the jovial Sikhs we see in cliché-ridden Hindi cinema are suddenly doing alarmingly cruel stuff. The yellow mustard fields give way to grungy rooms, crowded jail cells and ruins where addicts are digging hypodermic syringes in their veins. That, with the added impact of raw dialogues, just kills you.
One thing I found very interesting was the angle of freedom of speech in the film where the popstar is jailed specifically for hosting a drug-addled party and generally for misleading the youth by glamourizing drugs. I wondered if this is against FoE of a creative person, exactly what the film was accused of doing. Shahid’s Tommy Singh wrote odes to acid trips and white powders, which the youth lapped up and he was accused of promoting drug usage. He could, of course, claim that he was merely warning the people against drugs. Even the CBFC and assorted political netas justified their cuts by claiming that film promoted/glamourized drug usage.
The other thing is the misguided notion of the cultural police that filmstars and music stars ‘mislead’ the gullible youth – showing them the path of substance abuse, sexual crimes etc. In one scene, this myth is debunked where Tommy Singh’s fans turn against him when he starts saying things he doesn’t want to hear.
Overall, one of the better films of the year. Like an acid trip, Udta Punjab takes you to unimaginable highs and plunges you to depressing lows – after which you end up wanting more but are scared of it as well. There couldn’t have been a better anti-drugs film than this one.
[Frivolous Footnote: Hindi films on the drug menace have mostly shown a sanitized version of it.
Sridevi in Jaanbaaz was turned into an addict by the villains and finally killed by an overdose, though her chubby frame and made up face betrayed none of the ravages brought about by drug abuse. Priyanka Chopra in Fashion was supposed to be dabbling in recreational drugs as was Kangana Ranaut but that track was never the focus of the film. Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 does a bloody good job of showing what casual and sustained drug abuse means.]