Once you get past the shock value of hearing those words in more than one language repeatedly on screen – yes, even more than in numerous Bollywood gangster flicks of the past 10-15 years – you will realise that all this is nothing more than what a visitor to many parts of north India will hear in casual conversations. It is hard to understand why the Central Board of Film Certification a.k.a. the Censor Board would get so antsy about invectives that are used more often than the definite article in real life; or why these abuses, which are uttered without beeps by various characters, are inexplicably asterisked out in subtitles in this primarily Punjabi, partly Hindi film.
Here is the actual objection that Punjab’s politicians and their Censor Board allies would have had: writer-director Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab minces no words about a fact that the state’s netas have been anxious to keep under wraps for years now. Punjab is facing a serious drug epidemic; common sense suggests it is impossible for so many addictive substances to be so easily available to so many people, without the cooperation of the police and the political class.
Now that we have got that out of the way, let us focus on the real problem with Udta Punjab. Sure it is great that Chaubey has chosen to highlight a pressing social calamity, but the erratic narrative style ultimately dilutes what should have been a hard-hitting, revelatory film, in the end reducing the tragedy of drugs and drug addiction to a farce.
“Ever since I saw her, I no longer feel the need to take cocaine. After a long time, a tune has begun playing in my head after I set eyes on her. I’ve got my mojo back.” – This, in a nutshell, is how Punjab-based musician Tommy Singh describes his reaction to a Bihari field worker.
Is this some kind of joke?
A self-destructive drug addict has been ‘cured’ of substance abuse because he saw a pretty face?
There is more in this film where that came from. The first half of Udta Punjab is consistently grim, deeply disturbing and, appropriately, almost docu-feature-like. The second half though is intermittently farcical and ultimately makes a mockery of the concerns it set out to raise.
Three threads play out simultaneously in Udta Punjab. One involves the artiste formerly known as Tejender Singh, now Tommy (Shahid Kapoor), whose talent and success are fuelled by his consumption of multiple drugs. The second revolves around the young sportswoman-turned-peasant (Alia Bhatt) who gets entrenched in the drug mafia when she tries to sell a stolen cache. The third is about Dr Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan) who encounters assistant sub-inspector Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) when his brother becomes her patient.
At first, Udta Punjab proves to be a well-researched, sharply observed, much-needed, no-holds-barred account of the extent to which the state is mired in drugs and drug-related corruption. Even if you think you know, it is shocking to see the extent of unscrupulousness of those willing to ruin an entire population and even their own families for financial gain.
The intricate web of powerful folk and minions involved in this conscienceless trade is gasp-inducing, to say the least. It is also unnerving to see the soul-shattering effect that drugs can have on individuals who might otherwise have been humans with dignity.
So far so good. Then though, as if another director or multiple directors have taken over, the film unravels. Udta Punjab’s Achilles heel proves to be an inexplicable compulsion to assign a romance to each major mainstream star in the cast. The acting too is surprisingly patchy.
In fact, this film might be a good case study to help students understand that fine acting is rarely possible without the right chemistry between an actor, a director and a script. This can be the only explanation for why Shahid – whose stupendous performance in Haider (2014) remains fresh in the memory – is convincing in the first half but goes all goggle-eyed and almost comical once he apparently gets over his love for coke and sets out to help a stranger; or why the usually dependable Kareena here seems not to know when to wipe the twinkle out of her eyes.
Besides, there is no spark at all between her and the man in whom she appears to develop a romantic interest. As a result, that entire blossoming ‘relationship’ is awkwardly handled and appears contrived. Their younger co-star, Alia Bhatt, comes off better for the most part.
Likewise, Amit Trivedi’s music is as pleasing to the ear as always – especially the foot-stomping title track – but every good song is not good enough to be stuffed into a film. Ikk kudi, for instance, is well sung by Shahid Mallya, nice as a standalone number but maudlin in this context and completely out of sync with Udta Punjab’s initial tone.
It is a mystery why this film was allowed to come undone despite the tremendously gifted individuals involved and the extreme poignancy plus conviction of the first half. To watch a woman drugged into sexual submission, to hear her captors assure a potential rapist that “she is well trained” and will therefore not attack him, to witness the depths to which drug-addled brains will fall in their desperation for a fix is chilling beyond description.
After all this, then, to have a character suggest that he has recovered from his addiction because he fell for a woman is infuriatingly irresponsible; to see the film switch between heartbreak and the male protagonist’s serio-comic behaviour is confusing.
It is hard to believe that this uneven treatment of a grave issue has come to us from the director who delivered Vidya Balan to us in all her electrifying glory in the otherwise mixed bag that was Ishqiya (2010), from the man who gave us the genteel Dedh Ishqiya (2014) starring Madhuri Dixit-Nene and Huma Qureshi.