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Review: ‘Udta Punjab’ Mixes Powerful Social Commentary With Dark Humour

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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.

alia bhatt udta punjab
Alia Bhatt in ‘Udta Punjab’

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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