An Jo on Udta Punjab
The best shot in Chaubey’s Udta Punjab is at the start when a breezy, too-good-to-be-true romantic night with swaying branches and twinkling stars is interjected with three men stealthily riding a scooter. That the men are from across the border is finely conveyed through a 180 degree shot that reveals the moon-lighting discus-thrower’s homeland. He exercises, huffs, puffs, warms his arms, and finally, throws a majestic throw that will land in Punjab. As soon as it crosses the fence, the parcel stares at us with a cartoonish title-card across the parcel – UDTA PUNJAB. The scene then cuts directly to Shahid Kapoor’s Tommy Singh, a Punjabi rapper high on heroin and consequently music. One waits for more of such directorial quirks; sadly, they hardly come again. It’s uncanny but this scene immediately brought to my mind a segment from John Oliver’s show where he talked about the futility of The-Great-Wall-of-Trump in stopping drugs.
Cross-cutting through different classes, Chaubey hits home the drug menace in Punjab with characters inhabiting the different stairs of the social hierarchy ladder. They are all threaded together with heroin polluting their bloodstreams, but circumstances and societal standing are what separates them. The framing is as in Paul Haggis’ Crash, where the lone ‘ism’of race rips across and seeps through different characters and their social identity and status in Los Angeles. However, while Crash was a serious drama, Chaubey uses profanity and tragicomedy to let his characters float in. Tommy Singh aka Gabru [Shahid Kapoor] is a rapper who is struggling with ‘inspiration’ to lock down a new track; Diljit’s Sartaj Singh is a single-starred cop who is struggling to recoup his younger brother from addiction; and Alia Bhatt’s Mary Jane is a migrant from Bihar held in the drug lord’s den after being caught trying to sell the aforementioned stock to a henchman for the lure of a few quick-bucks. Guilt over-takes Sartaj when he discovers his own brother falling prey to heroin, and he decides to help Kareena Kapoor Khan’s Preet Sahani, a doctor, in getting to the main person behind the drugs’ supply chain. Till then, he was quite happy siphoning off some kilos of contraband and selling to third parties, making money on the side.
The film delves into the whole logistics part less and invests more time in the characters and their travails through the drug-infested lanes of Punjab and the fight with themselves and drugs. Tommy Singh who has ‘fuddu’ styled on his head is jolted when he is thrown in a jail along with other junkies. [There’s a fine scene where two junkies play out one of his songs claiming to be his fans. He is later stunned to discover that the boys killed their mother when she refused to give money to buy drugs.] Alia gets into the iron-grip of the drug-lords when she tries to sell of a luckily-gotten parcel. She is kept as a slave literally and used to trade with policemen and other acolytes up and down the supply-chain. She tries her best to rid herself of the addiction inflicted on her in captivity. There are some great scenes that show her fighting against her captors, and more strongly, against her slippage when it comes to the needle.
The film’s main USP are its performances. Shahid Kapoor starts off with Tom Cruise’s Rock Of Ages inspiration and is quite grating. But as he reveals himself behind the stage, he comes into his own and gives into the mad-cap role designed for him. It’s quite an unexpected but fine exit as he starts revealing his idiosyncrasies and his drug-infested mood-swings. Chaubey smashes to bits the cliché of a rock-star-that-can-bed-any-woman-anytime and devolves the persona into a caricature! From a rockstar who it seems has the world under his feet, Shahid’s Tommy down-grades from a partier to a jail-inmate to a ‘fuddu’ to possibly a ‘kutta’ as Alia wonders. Chaubey directs Tommy as someone slipping down a one-way path and Shahid plays it very well as the fool-in-every-one’s eyes through stoned expressions and wide-open eyes. He knows he is devolving into a fool and the world sees him for that fool, nothing but a laughing-stock. I am not an expert on Bhojpuri but Alia for sure hits the right notes and makes one empathise with her, even though she is unnecessarily transformed into a heavily-freckled migrant. She is great in the first exchange between her and Shahid. Their debate about the difference between a ‘Lullu’ and a ‘Fuddu’ is a hoot. Diljit Dosanjh as Sartaj Singh is fine as the guilt-ridden love-lorn inspector and makes quite an impression. Kareena Kapoor Khan as the doctor doesn’t have a meaty role and comes across a female version of Dr. Phil but manages to impart dignity to her role as a doctor and a rehabilitator. Both Dosanjh and Kareena display fine chemistry. Satish Kaushik as Tommy’s relative-cum-manager is hilarious.
Music by Amit Trivedi is top-notch, especially ‘Chitti Ve’, ‘Ikk Kudi’ and ‘Da Da Dasse’. ‘Da Da Dasse’ and ‘Ikk Kudi’ leave a strong impact. This is quite an album and worth investing in.
Finally, the writers and director come up with some great writing and some fine direction even though all is not quite well. Chaubey displays his virtuosity in some scenes and they are truly worthy, if not better than the opening scene. A couple of Alia’s shots are inter-cut with Shahid’s, in a way, indicating that they are destined to meet. Alia’s hallucination after a hit takes her on a free-fall into the river bed. She starts swimming toward a ray of light and as she tries to catch the source, Tommy splashes up from the swimming pool with a light stuck around his fore-head. In another indicator, Alia’s scene is cut to a shot of Tommy sitting in jail. Both are fine touches. And then there’s the scene where Tommy sings to a patient in the hospital with cops banging at the door just to get the location of Alia. Or the scene where Tommy berates his audience that they cannot listen to two minutes of sane-talk while they were quite happy to hear and absorb 4 years of coke-snorted hog-was as philosophy. There is a chilling scene where the drug-lord patriarch calls Alia a daughter gently and then leaves her at the mercy of men behaving like hawks. Alia travelling to sell the dough in the hopes of some quick and dirty money with ‘Da Da Dasse’ playing in the background is fantastically shot. It captures the dreams in her eyes of busy malls, high-end clothes, and varieties of food; all coming to an abrupt end as she realises she’s walked into a trap. Alia’s entry shot as a migrant sitting in a crowded bus with a hockey stick is a pre-cursor to another shot later where the significance of the hockey-stick is realised. Tommy is going on and on about the troubles he’s facing thanks to his drug addiction— in reality, he is hallucinating and just making a joke of himself—and Alia shuts him up and talks of her misery; she kisses him on the lips and tells him that except this, EVERYTHING else has been forced on her.
There are many downfalls too: Kareena and Dosanjh trying to accomplish some private investigation to gather proof are not strongly shot and remind one of Biswajeet’s ‘thrillers.’ The film is uneven and appears elongated post-interval. A running length of 145 minutes feels that – 145 minutes. Though Kareena’s and Dosanjh’s flirtations and exchanges are quite genuine, their scenes do appear to go on and on. (Where’s Nihalani when we need him?!)
With regard to the politics of the movie, well, it isn’t as specific as one would have believed thanks to the controversy. It does show, however, that everybody is hands-in-glove in pushing the state toward addiction, from the politician to the bureaucrat to the police. A shop-keeper casually remarks that nobody drinks tea in Punjab now-a-days since they are drunk on something else.
This is an uneven film but still, has a lot going for it and worth visiting; either at the movies or on DVD. Of course, this is no patch on the directors’ Dedh Ishqiya. Coming to profanity, yes, this one has abuses galore and in almost every other line. There is so much of BC that I felt Virat Kohli had missed out on a grand Bollywood launch here!