'Udta Punjab': a choppy but wholly worthwhile trip

A gut-wrenching look at the frightening dystopia that is Punjab today owing to rampant drug abuse .

June 17, 2016 12:15 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 12:34 pm IST

Growing up in Delhi one always felt something extremely reassuring, secure and comforting about the Sikh and Punjabi elders around, much more than the seniors of any other community. They seemed to ooze an infectious optimism and positivity. An affectionate word, a warm hug from them and even in your worst moments of crisis you’d feel that everything will eventually turn out alright; that you will move on to better things, battered a bit perhaps but all the more strong for it.

No wonder a scene in 'Udta Punjab' broke my heart and betrayed these long-held beliefs in a mere instant. A patriarch gently addresses the Bihari migrant girl (Alia Bhatt, utterly real, raw and vulnerable) as “puttar” (child) and asks her why she stole heroin worth a crore if she had to eventually throw it away. The soft, soothing enquiry sets the most disturbing tenor for the viciousness and brutality that come to be heaped on her by his family of drug dealers, with his tacit nod of approval, of course. 'Udta Punjab' is all about swallowing such bitter pills.

Genre: Drama Director: Abhishek Chaubey Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor, Diljit Dosanjh, Satish Kaushik Runtime: 148.33 minutes

Despite the Partition, the Khalistan movement, insurgency and Operation Bluestar in the not-so-distant past, Punjab has largely been a prosperous and happy, gregarious and gung ho, outgoing and all embracing State in our collective thoughts. Chaubey exposes us to the frightening dystopia it has become in the past few years. And it’s not something out of his own fictional hat but rooted in the State’s unfortunate present. That the drug menace could turn it into a lawless Mexico (remember Traffic ) is not just something that the film cries foul about but has been reported, read, seen and heard all along the way. But it acquires an added urgency and manic immediacy when it begins to unfold on the big screen.

No surprise then that the film is forced to kick off with one of the longest disclaimers seen recently. A packet of heroin gets thrown like a discus from across the border and we are plunged into a pulsating, frenetic world of rock 'n' roll and drugs, of snorting chitta (white) powder, injecting a cocktail of liquids into the veins. Rock star Tommy (Shahid Kapoor, all sound and fury and sheer madness) aka Gabru takes you straight on the trip and gets you high. But Chaubey also breaks the frenzy and hallucination of the title track with the sad, worn out and gloomy faces of the ordinary, nameless addicts. The film might feel a trifle too loud and feverish for comfort at the start but you settle into its wildness and delirium in a matter of time. And you are totally in tune by the time a newly rehabilitated Tommy addresses his fans: “I composed a song on drugs and you turned it into your philosophy. You are even bigger losers than I am.”

Not once does Chaubey glamorise the use of drugs. Nor does he turn exploitative with the grime, filth and muck. In fact the film is unpleasant, disturbing and raw in the way it lays the abuse bare. The lives lost to addiction cut an immensely sorry figure, more so the desperate families when things reach home, when it’s no longer about “Sadde munde theek, horan de kharab (our kids are fine, it’s the others who have turned wayward)”. It’s a Hotel California everyone is trapped in with no signs of escape. Simultaneously Chaubey also shows the long and tough road to recovery. His moral core is strong and firm. It’s a war against drugs, against political and systemic complicity (Badal anyone) and against one’s own self. In the madness all around there are two voices of sanity and transformation –ASI Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh, easy going, charming and nuanced) who gets sensitised to the issue when his own brother Balli turns an addict and doctor Preet (Kareena Kapoor, a figure of hope in her calm, untainted self), waging a war against substance abuse all on her own.

The authenticity is not just in the issue or the locale but in the expletive-loaded lingo and lyrics as well. The film’s music matches the mood and the messaging. Much of the dialogue and songs are in Punjabi. Most of all the dark theme also echoes in the wry humour that is so typically Punjabi, like a cop calling the drug problem Green Revolution Part 2.

There could be much to nitpick on. The cop-doc romantic track as well as the tenuous bond between Tommy and Pinky do seem out of place – yet also provide a much needed breather in the film’s suffocating world. One would have liked to know more of Pinky’s life as it moved from playing hockey to working on the fields with sickle in hand. The resolution could appear a tad too convenient and Goa might not quite the right escape from Punjab after all. But ultimately for me, 'Udta Punjab' is not about the story, the four main characters, their acting or the music even. It’s about relentless exposure to a gut-wrenching reality for 148 minutes (a shorter version may have been even stronger) that I am still trying to process. It’s about the many innocent, helpless Ballis being born to drugs everyday. I came out of the screening with Balli’s cries ringing harsh in my ears. They are haunting me. Still.

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