In focus Cinema

Loving Punjabi cinema

The udta in the title of Udta Punjab does not just refer to the momentary ‘highs’ experienced by the characters while on narcotics; it also signifies the optimism that marks the way of life there, irrespective of the circumstance. The film, apart from its portrayal of the drug menace afflicting the adolescents in the State, was one of the rare attempts at portraying authentically the numbed aspirations of the people living there. It did show the green fields, the Pakistan border, the somewhat-broken houses but did not romanticise them. It also showed the real problems like unemployment among youth, the fighting spirit of the people, the desire to fight the drug menace among them, and the infectious optimism that accompanies that desire.

The movie has also brought some welcome focus to Punjabi cinema. Despite being part of Indian cinema for 81 years — the first Punjabi movie Pind Di Kudi was released in 1935, just four years after the first talkie Alam Ara — it has been treated as a poor cousin of the giant that is Bombay industry. Despite Punjabi being a language spoken by around 100 million people around the world, the industry has produced a little more than 1,000 movies so far.

The Punjabi superstar

Having produced a lion’s share of talent working in Bombay cinema — including the first family, the Kapoors — the contribution of Punjabi culture to Indian cinema is undeniable. However, the Punjabis, especially the Sardars, have also been at the receiving end of some of the worst stereotyping in Hindi movies. Hence, it came as an instant relief to see an intense but understated Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh) in Udta Punjab.

Having acted in some of the most successful of recent Punjabi films, Diljit is a superstar figure in the State. One of the displays of his superstardom is perhaps through his character Jaggi Singh, who hails from Samrala, in Sardarji. He plays a seasoned ghost-hunter summoned to London to deal with a lady spirit. The tropes employed — like Jaggi’s friendly humour; his almost supernatural ability to identify and strike a chord with bhoots and chudails (ghosts); his ability to break into impromptu song and dance sequences to impress the lady characters; the punch dialogues — bring a certain heroic status to the character. It is clear that the director Rohit Jugraj Chauhan did not want to just make a successful film, he wanted to build a franchise.

The trailer of Sardarji-2 — the movie released on June 24 — takes the good-hearted Jaggi’s status one step forward. Here, there are not one but many of his star versions. The show-stealer in the trailer clearly is the dialogue that bookends it — Sardar chaahe Brigadier hon, chahe gatekeeper; Sardar chaahe Pradhan Mantri hon, chaahe kulfiyan bech raha hon, ‘Sardar’ naal ji zaroor lagainda (Whether a Sardar is a Brigadier or a gatekeeper; whether he is a Prime Minister or a Kulfi-seller, never forget to add a ‘ji’ while referring to him as a ‘Sardar’). I could imagine an entire theatre bursting into applause and cheer on hearing this. Finally, there is a superhero figure among the Sardars! The two Sardarji movies also show that the cinema of Punjab has begun exorcising the ghosts of partition and the separatist movement of the 1980s to create its own sub-culture of indigenous comedies.

Producer Gunbir Singh Sidhu, whose company White Hill Productions, has made some of the biggest Punjabi hits over the years, speaks with a certain justifiable pride when he says, “Many of the successful movies made in Punjabi in the last 5 years have been produced by us. The trend started with Jatt and Juliet, then continued with its sequel, Punjab 1984 — which won a National Award — and Sardarji [all starring Dosanjh].” According to Wikipedia, Sardarji has made nearly 50 crores, which makes it a blockbuster in Punjabi cinema. Its sequel, having made around Rs.13 crore in the opening weekend, is catching up. Gunbir adds: “We have sold the rights of Jatt and Juliet and its second part to Tamil and Telugu producers.”

The network

I was also somewhat curious to know about the distribution network of Punjabi films. Gunbir says the revival of the industry, both nationally and internationally, started with Jatt and Juliet. “Our core market is in the east Punjab circuit that consists of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu. The secondary market is from cities like Jaipur, Pune, Mumbai, Bhubaneswar, Patna, Rudrapur and Bengaluru.” He adds that the overseas market consists of not just Canada — where Punjabi is the third-most spoken language, after English and French — but the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, African countries like Kenya and other Asian countries, including Philippines.

With production houses such as Speed Records — famous for producing many albums of Honey Singh — Studio 7 production and Gunbir’s White Hill, the industry is finally becoming somewhat organised.

The Hindu-Punjabi relationship

When we track the history of Punjabi films, including the National Award-winning ones, it seems that Punjabi and Hindi films have enjoyed a seeder-leecher relationship. It has been a one-way traffic, with the latter giving very little back to the former. Chann Pardesi, the first Punjabi movie to have won a National Award, is symptomatic of this. Most of the actors — Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Raj Babbar, Om Puri — were those who had either established themselves or were making their mark in Hindi films. The characters — a haughty jagirdar (landlord), a scheming assistant, an honest labourer, subservient wives — were similar to those in Hindi films of the 80s. However, what added a touch of freshness was some realistic cinematography by Manmohan Singh — who was a regular fixture in Yash Chopra’s films — due to which we can literally feel and smell the fields and the streets of the village, a microcosm of rural Punjab. Cinematography, and music were two factors that made the movies authentic. However, they were not enough to make the industry move forward.

Chann Pardesi did become successful in 1980, in the early years of militancy in the State. However, despite the emergence of successful singer-actors like Gurdas Maan, the industry never moved out of the shadows of Hindi films until the late 2000s when other singing stars like Harbhajan Maan and Gippy Grewal, along with Gurdas himself, helped consolidate its position. It could be said to have found its feet in the last 6-7 years. In this regard, Jatt and Juliet marks a point of inflexion. Despite the NRI-focused themes of many recent films — the Canadian dreams of many people there are as much a part of the State’s recent history as the drug problem or the prosperity that followed the Green Revolution — the industry’s refreshing success does prove that it is making an earnest attempt to create an identity distinct from its Bombay connections.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 5:34:45 PM |

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