By Rohini Banerjee:
With its very first scene where an athlete from Pakistan takes a long run-up and literally hurls a huge packet of heroin across the border, Udta Punjab makes it clear that it’s not here to stick to any set genre or formula. It is equal parts stark realism and theatre of the absurd — mixing powerful social commentary with dark humour in a way that could have been confusing, but ends up superbly compelling.
The film has been shrouded with controversy in the past few weeks — first with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) asking to make 89 cuts, and then, after an arduous legal battle, it was cleared by the Bombay High Court with only one cut. The reason why the CBFC wanted to make too many cuts, was because it was too political — too reflective of not just Punjab’s rampant drug problem, but also the corrupt authorities that enable it — and while the film is every bit that, what it does most poignantly is reflect upon the personal. While Punjab, with its drugs and corruption, are dominant entities in the film, it is ultimately the story of four individuals and how the drug trade and drug abuse intimately affect their lives.
The four individuals in question belong to distinctly different social mores and struggle with the drug problem in their own way. Shahid Kapoor, delivering one of his best performances yet, plays Tommy Singh, a Punjabi pop star who not only is an addict himself but also romanticises and promotes addiction in his music (remind you of a certain real-life Punjabi rapper?), while Diljit Dosanjh turns in an earnest, and surprisingly layered performance as Sartaj Singh, a cop who starts out corrupt but later becomes devoted to bringing down the drug-smuggling chain as he sees his own brother fall victim to addiction. However, it is the women who really steal the show. Kareena Kapoor plays Preet, a driven young doctor who runs a rehabilitation clinic and becomes the film’s voice of reason, while simultaneously trying to save lives affected by addiction. However, the person who is a true phenomenon in this film, truly something to behold, is Alia Bhatt. She plays a Bihari immigrant and aspiring hockey player who gets embroiled within the drugs racket when she stumbles upon a large consignment of heroin. Bhatt’s performance is brutal, visceral, and chills you to the bone — a role much beyond her years, but pulled off with such finesse and honesty. Her character becomes a means of offering powerful commentary on how poverty and helplessness leads Punjabi youth towards drugs. The best part, though, is how she transcends her suffering, fights against it so fiercely, and refuses to give up.
The film doesn’t shy away from the gory realities of drug abuse, and hence gets quite graphic. Overdose victims are shown emaciated and covered in vomit, needles and injections populate the landscape of the film, drug withdrawal symptoms are shown in excruciating detail (along with instances of self-harm), and there are also scenes of drug-induced rape. However, all of it is necessary, because all of it is real.
And yet, as earlier mentioned, the film dazzles the most when it delves into the personal lives of the characters. Sartaj, who is grappling with his personal tragedies, yet boyishly fumbles on asking a woman on a date; Tommy, who desperately wants to quit drugs but is unable to create music without it; and Alia Bhatt’s nameless Bihari girl, who looks out at a Goa-trip advertisement from her window and craves a similar escape. The most dazzling and the most powerful few scenes, however, occur when Shahid and Alia’s characters interact, both delivering monologues that underline exactly how lethal a toll addiction can take on human lives.
The film soars because of its incredible performances, and even when the plot meanders, you are still glued to the screen because of how wonderfully complex and human these characters are. A special mention to Rajeev Ravi’s cinematography, which shows us a gritty, perilous Punjab, far from the romanticised versions of it Bollywood has tried to sell us in the past. Another special mention to Amit Trivedi’s stellar score and music, which compliments and accentuates the narrative in the best possible way.
Despite pirated versions being leaked, watch this film in the theatre, and actually go pay for it. It’s not just worth the money, but also an important political statement, and a victory for freedom to dissent.