The CBFC’s wrangle with the makers of Udta Punjab was the best thing and the worst thing that could have happened to it. The former because the controversy has built up interest in the movie like nothing else would have, and the latter because the expectations are now sky-high and unfortunately the movie is not able to meet it. I walked out of the theatre with a sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction unfurling within me. It was as if a favourite sports team, which reached the finals after a tough fight, decided to play down their strengths and ended up with a draw. It’s a good film no doubt, with a powerful star cast, but it could have been so much better.
Perennial back-slapping, annoyingly cheerful people, tons of food, huge frothing glasses of lassi, songs at the drop of a hat, garish weddings and equally loud clothes – such is the picture of Punjabis that Bollywood has shown us. Director Abhishek Chaubey shows us a Punjab devoid of all these stereotypes. Dusty villages, people sitting around lethargically with vacant eyes, and a generation succumbing effortlessly to the lure of drugs are some scenes which remain in our minds even after exiting the theater. There certainly are the ubiquitous lush green fields, but the workers are mostly women especially migrant workers from Bihar and other states. The smokescreen that mainstream Bollywood throws on Punjab is removed for a moment and the resultant image is bleak and anguishing.
Udta Punjab is a good film with a strong message. There’re 3 storylines, each approaching the central issue of drugs from different angles. We get a glimpse into the lives of a cop, a doctor who runs a de-addiction center and two end users. Each of them represent the many facets of a menace that is threatening to engulf the state of Punjab. Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) is a corrupt cop who doesn’t mind turning a blind eye to drug smuggling as long as he gets his cut. When his brother is admitted in the de-addiction center run by Dr Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor), she holds up a mirror to the young policeman’s actions and he realizes the far-reaching effects of his apathy. Alongside this narrative runs that of Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) a hugely popular rock star who is not only a junkie but also glamourizes substance abuse through his songs. His brush with the law is the turning point where his life takes a different path. Now we come to the most poignant character, who is an unnamed migrant worker from Bihar, portrayed brilliantly by Alia Bhatt. Once a hockey player who was in the district team, she’s forced to leave home and work in the fields of Punjab due to extreme financial constraints. While Tommy Singh is a druggie by choice, the young girl is forcibly made a slave to drugs in the most heinous way. It’s chilling to see the complete lack of any humane qualities in people whose single point agenda is to amass wealth. Substance abuse in Punjab is shown through the ebb and flow of the lives of the main characters. The film tries to capture the changes that occur in the main characters as they grapple with the shadows that substance abuse throws on their lives.
Shahid Kapur as Tommy Singh has got all the swag, attitude and witty dialogues, but the petite Alia Bhatt with her haunted eyes lingers in our minds long after Kapur’s voice goes silent. The young actress has been able to perfectly slip into the skin of her character like a chameleon. The helplessness, frustration, anger and emptiness of the naïve girl trapped in the clutches of ruthless drug dealers has been portrayed brilliantly by Alia. Diljith Dosanjh and Kareena Kapoor do justice to their roles but unfortunately their characters are not fleshed out properly. Abhishek Chaubey, the director, has tried to give a holistic view of the issue by covering it in detail from all viewpoints, but in the process the storyline has lost its richness and depth. He had three amazing storylines and it seems that in trying to give equal importance to all of them he has ended up losing the crux of the plot.
I only wish the director could have avoided the exceedingly incredulous flights of fantasy that he has taken, which has detracted so much from its credibility. The cop and the doctor wandering around unhindered in a warehouse where drugs are stored and the rock star cycling nearly a 100 kms while going through withdrawal were some scenes which were ludicrous to say the least. The songs, composed by Amit Trivedi will not stand the test of time and will soon be forgotten. However, one particular song written by the late Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi, called Ikk Kudi stands out for the beauty it holds in its simplicity. That moment, where the rock star sings from his heart for the first time without any screaming fans or cameras, is one of the most enduring scenes of the movie.
Udta Punjab doesn’t tell us anything new about substance abuse, but it tries valiantly to provide a cohesive picture of the problem in Punjab. Unfortunately it doesn’t touch too many chords with the viewer and so remains a good attempt rather than a brilliant film.