“I want to make mainstream movies but not by losing myself in the process”

Abhishek Chaubey unwinds with Sankhayan Ghosh to talk about making India’s first drug film, multi-cast shootouts and why he agreed to that one cut in Udta Punjab.

Updated - December 05, 2021 09:03 am IST

Published - June 22, 2016 09:02 pm IST

Director Abhishek Chaubey. Photo: Rajneesh Londhe

Director Abhishek Chaubey. Photo: Rajneesh Londhe


It is arguable if  Udta Punjab  is Abhishek Chaubey’s best work but it is certainly on its way to become his most widely watched film. During its month-long battle with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the film became the face of freedom of expression. The star-studded drug-drama set in Punjab, that released last week, has benefited from the controversy, agrees Chaubey. But he is ready to trade it with the nightmarish experience he had to go through to release his film without multiple cuts. When we met the 39-year-old filmmaker in a relaxed mood in his airy Versova apartment post-release, he opened up about various aspects of  Udta Punjab ,   why it needed to be an anti-drug public service announcement (PSA), his penchant for mashing up genres and why love is crucial for rehabilitation.


You have said that the idea initially was to make a drug-film set across India. But you chose to set it in Punjab because on account of being close to the border it is the most affected. Did that change the initial idea in some way?


From the beginning, Sudip Sharma (screenwriter) and I were conscious about the fact that this in a sense was going to be the first Hindi movie exclusively about out and out drug abuse. We went to the Majha region of Punjab which is worst affected. We met a cross section of people. From health care professionals, law enforcement officers, super rich kids in rehabs, addicts in rural areas, including some very young kids. And some of them were harrowing experiences. That really changed our agenda for the film. Until then, we were feeling very cool about the fact that we were making the first of its kind drug movie in India, that we are doing something edgy, dark and trippy.


Visiting Punjab changed those ideas because after seeing the reality there, we felt a sense of responsibility. To spout a cliché and at the cost of coming across as sentimental, we realised that this is bigger than us. I mean, it’s okay if a world cinema buff sitting in Delhi or Mumbai rejects the film but when those kids in Ludhiana watch it they should be able to relate to it. Otherwise the purpose is lost. Hence, the Public Service Announcement [elements] in the film. I have read people saying that and I understand where that’s coming from. If I was watching the film, I’d be like, “Dude, I know what drugs can do, you don’t need to say it in so many words.”


Is that why the film is so overtly anti-drugs?


Yes, especially anti-heroin and anti-opiate. It’s not so much anti-cocaine if you notice. It’s a party drug that rich kids do it, many great directors like Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone have experimented with cocaine, have binged and come out of it. Many Bollywood stars have done the same. Coke is not a big deal. Marijuana doesn’t even qualify. The name of Alia’s character as Mary Jane, a brilliant idea by Sudip, in fact is an allusion to marijuana. I mean any drug is bad per se but doing drugs is a matter of choice if you are 18 and above. But when it becomes a sociological problem, when somebody like Alia’s character or Balli (Diljit Dosanjh’s brother in the film) doesn’t have a choice in the matter, then you have to take a stand. And you have to go out there and do this. Hence, the film is so viciously anti-drug. There is a lot of MDMA and coke abuse in Lokhandwala, Andheri. But that’s not breakdown of society, that’s just people partying. That’s excess, debauched or decadent. But what is happening in Punjab demanded this of the film.


We lost out on the respect of a certain kind of people, but I know that it has worked with the average youngster in Punjab. That’s also the reason why so much of the film is in Punjabi because there was no other way of doing it. I know that when those kids in Punjab hear “ Nasha kalla banda karta hai and uspe poori family pe asar haunda hai ” they are going to get goosebumps. I know that because I met these people. Hence it was important that social agenda took over filmmaking agenda. If I was making a second or third film, I could have a lateral view on drugs. Here I am making the first drug film in Bollywood. So I am really trying to create the space and I have that responsibility. Now people will come and break this space and make a more evolved drug movie.


Steven Soderbergh’s  Traffic  is considered a textbook for multi-track narrative. Was that a reference?


It’s silly for a filmmaker to make a drug film with multi-track narrative and not acknowledge  Traffic . The reason why we went for a multi track narrative is not to ape  Traffic . In fact we were worried about the fact that it may seem derivative. It really came from our experiences in Punjab. We had to look from two perspectives: the systemic and the individual. There is the cop and doctor in Sartaj and Preet. Drug addiction cuts across all social classes in Punjab. So in Tommy you have the wealthy, upper class drug addict, Balli is the lower middle class, Mary Jane is below poverty line.


Despite the PSA-like theme, the film has a whimsical, mash-up quality: there are shades of dark comedy, narco-thriller, light romance, stoner caper. That’s true with all your films. In a previous interview, you have also expressed your dislike for the West’s obsession with tonal consistency.


Tonal consistency is overrated. Even the foreign films I like take wild risks with tone. I can think of the Korean film  Oldboy . It becomes a love story, almost operatic action film but it has a very dark emotional core. And there is humour in the middle; in fact the opening of the film is a joke. Martin Scorsese does that all the time when he does gangsters films with a lot of dark humour. Quentin Tarantino too. Even Bollywood does that. Vijay Anand is such a cool, sexy filmmaker. I like taking those risks. Sometimes I just can’t help it. I have a weakness for it. For instance, when Tommy and the two junkies go into the hospital, I told the two guys to start imitating Tommy’s limping. Suddenly all three of them are limping their way into the hospital. If there is a space available while Sudip and I are writing we can’t resist a joke or two. Just because I’m doing an issue based film I need not – not be fun, sensuous and entertaining. I hope it comes from not taking oneself and the film too seriously. Or maybe taking it too seriously.


You also seem to be quite musical. All the protagonists of your films have something to do with music: Krishna in  Ishqiya , Begum Para in Dedh Ishqiya  and Tommy in  Udta Punjab . A crucial moment in the latter comes when Tommy rather unexpectedly starts singing in the hospital.


It is tricky to have songs in films. When I started out I was very hard nosed about it. I mean I came to Mumbai from Delhi after working with Film Societies and watching movies in French and German centres. I would be like, why should films have songs and all that? What is all this crap? But you come and have to adjust to a new environment and you have to be mature about it. You have to look at how you can create your own space here. While it’s not a must but music is a very important part of our films.


I have worked with Vishal Bhardwaj for a decade. And he, before anything else is a musician. Music is a foregone conclusion in his films. I mean, even  Talvar has songs. Keeping all those things in mind I have been honing my skills in using songs in films. I have no plans of being an obscure filmmaker; I want to go out and do it in the mainstream and connect with people. But not by losing myself in the process. Maybe one day if I make a courtroom drama I will not use music. I still find it uncomfortable to break into song and dance. So it helps if one of your characters is connected to music because it gives you the excuse to do that. Before a filmmaker I am a film buff, and I like a cross section of films genres and styles. But films that I really get emotional about and care are ones that use music in a certain way. The directors I admire and really enjoy like the Coen Brothers, Scorsese and Tarantino also use music very well.


What’s with the trope of ending your movies – all three,  Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya  and now  Udta Punjab  – with a shootout?


I don’t know. It’s a subconscious pattern I suppose. Of the films I wrote,  Blue Umbrella  and  Omkara  didn’t have it, but  Kaminey  did. I think it’s because of the kind of structure of my films. All these films have one thing in common: they have multiple characters. While there are protagonists, the others’ story arcs also need a closure. That pre-climactic shootout is the only way I know I know to do it I guess.


Why did it have to be love as a motivation for the reform of the characters of  Udta Punjab ?


Firstly, if you look carefully at the angle between Tommy and Mary Jane, it’s not so much romantic love. He is amazed by her. Here is a guy who is extremely wealthy and successful who because of abuse has lost his muse and his bearings. He is talking about it to this girl saying things like, “Life is over, party khatam, go home” and all that when the girl turns around and says, “What are you talking about? This is what has happened with me.”


It’s not that he changes in that very moment. But he gets a window after meeting this person who talks about the immense hope that she has amidst all the darkness in her life. And his own story isn’t a patch on her. A lightbulb pops into his head. He is blown by her. He goes to find her because that will in a sense, bring him redemption.


That is the story. Just because its Alia and Shahid we tend to make it two plus two plus two that it’s a romantic story. When she kisses him, she isn’t saying, “I am in love with you”. It’s a violent peck on the mouth and she doesn’t really enjoy it. Maybe they will fall in love after he comes out of jail but I am not interested in going there. I think too much has been made out of that in the response to the film.


Secondly, it is the absolute truth that when abuse takes over you, de-addiction is one thing but the real solution – complete rehabilitation – is a process of human connection and love. What we are witnessing in societies in the form of tremendous amount of drug abuse is a symptom of a society breaking down rather than the cause of the society’s breakdown. There is too much isolation. Whether you want to look at Spanish Harlem, Manipur or Kashmir what is common is that there is a social dystopia going on in all these places. There is social apathy and lack of human relationships. Therefore, it is important that a film that is highly dramatised and commercial and has Shahid Kapur in it, achieves the bigger point in this fashion. Through both these characters finding each other, the film also says that the individual battle against drugs can be won if there is human connection and love around you.


As far as the system is concerned I genuinely don’t think it’s a winnable battle. Nobody in the world has won the war against drugs. Nobody, it’s not possible.


The opening sequence is quite something, when we see a Pakistani pehelwan discuss throwing a packet of heroin from across the border. How did it come about?


Yes, the opening is quite energetic. It came out of research. There are two fundamental ways – I am sure there are underground ways also – of how heroin is smuggled across the border. One, they use really long PVC pipes, stuff maal  and push it with a stick and there is something to pull it from the other side. The second one is our scene when you have small quantities to supply. I was blown when I heard about this. I was like, “Yaar, this is fascinating. A guy throws it and someone else really catches it. It’s a real thing!” The Pakistan jersey is of course stretched. And about the discus-throwing bit, if you think about it, an ordinary person can’t throw 1.5 kilos through that distance. And the pehelwans, who they call from akharas, are athletic. They aren’t criminals; they do it for some money.  


Most people have agreed that this is the most different portrayal of Punjab in mainstream Hindi cinema which has mostly treated the region like a fabled land of stereotypes.


It was a by-product of the fact that we chose to set it in Punjab .   Our   main   focus was never to break the image of Punjab as portrayed in pop culture. But of course, there was a surprise that yes, this is how real Punjab looks and feels like. What Bollywood has shown isn’t entirely untrue. They have heightened it of course but people are also very  zinda dil , warm and robust,  khet hai hare bhare – all of that is true. The mustard fields are there. We don’t see so many pink dupattas running across those fields, there are broken syringes found there too. It became such a thing because a lot of Bollywood filmmakers hailing from Punjab, from both sides of the border came to Bombay post-partition. They had a sense of nostalgia about their land, like how NRIs think of India. Then the subsequent generations just took it up and thought this is how it is.


Punjab has got a lot of unusually beautiful things too, which was beautifully captured in  Anhe Ghode Da Daan . It’s a wonderfully shot film and effective too. I kind of like that film. It was a visual reference point for me in  Udta . It showed the other side of Punjab very artistically, that something mainstream audience won’t enjoy. So although we were setting out to make what we thought is an exciting and entertaining film, it was important that we had the element of social realism. We have seen people like Mani Ratnam, Vishal Bhardwaj and Dibakar Banerjee do that very well in mainstream Hindi cinema. I mean if it’s a village in Punjab shoot in a village in Punjab, no? What’s the big deal about it? Why can’t you make a film that’s entertaining, engrossing and enjoyable that has people wearing what they really wear? Why do costumes have to be starched and colourful and the walls pink, blue, yellow or green?


You offered to remove the shot of Tommy urinating on the audience, which is the only cut in the film. The line  Powder ki Line o Ka Rakhega Kaun Hisaab  from the song ‘Ud Da Punjab’ was changed in the promo although it was an innuendo for cocaine. Why?


Every nano-second of my film is important for me. However there was a feeling during the legal proceedings that there mustn't be anything gratuitous in the film because if there is, we would lose the right to defend things that weren't gratuitous and absolutely essential to the story. This was the one thing that the bench in the honourable High Court mentioned that could be perceived in the wrong light by the viewers. Hence we chose to voluntarily remove it.

As for the song, it was a mutual call by everybody, including the producers because the same promo was going to be aired on TV and watched by children. But the line is intact in the album. 

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