Home » Bollywood News » Udta Punjab: A riveting film that internalises the energy of its substances

Udta Punjab: A riveting film that internalises the energy of its substances

Rahul Desai | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST
  • Abhishek Chaubey\'s third film after the Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya
  • Releases with just one cut after winning case against CBFC
  • One of the most forceful, and well-acted, films of 2016
Rating: 4 Stars

More than an hour into Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab, a Bihari girl (Alia Bhatt) and a Jatt boy (Shahid Kapoor) cross paths. They're running from someone: perhaps from themselves, he suspects. Both of them are at the crossroads, in danger of being swept away. They break down and confide in each other as perfect strangers. There's a fear for everybody, and nobody, in their eyes. And then they're torn apart, but not before falling in love.

Love, for them, at that moment, was just being able to be heard. It isn't romantic; it's desperate, and needed, and far from horrible. Even her hard kiss on his lips, an organic extension of her meltdown, is because "those monsters did everything but *this* to me." This line, in Bhatt's quivering voice, suggests the kind of 'ugliness' that no living mainstream actress would dare to embody. He then becomes the knight in shining armour who must rescue her from an evil tower. She has become his drug in five short minutes.

If one somehow overlooks the accessories - that she is an impoverished Bihari girl being held as a heroin-addled sex slave, and he is a brash Punjabi pop star (Tommy Singh, aka "Gabru") who has built his debauched career on the back of 'cool' drug glorification - theirs is a match made in heaven. They don't seem like the kind of characters that merit a happy ending; an end, perhaps, give the way they've been sucked to the bone and back.

Instead, the sincere faces that do deserve resolution belong to the two people fighting all that Tommy stands for: an assistant inspector named Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) and a doctor named Preet Sahani (Kareena Kapoor Khan). Sartaj's younger brother Balli (Prabhjyot Singh; a revelation) is a Gabru fan-boy and a coke addict, suffering through crippling withdrawals in Preet's care. Sartaj, who suddenly realizes that he is part of the system that has caused this, grows a conscience. That aside, he 'looks' like a good man and a hero, which is why Preet trusts him enough to hatch a plan and trace the illegal narco-trade right up to political bigwigs. She looks bright too (and "clean" as Sartaj eloquently puts it), which is why one expects both of them to genuinely save the day. Tommy and his girl are born to wilt and dirty and destroy - or so it seems.

These three seemingly disconnected narratives merge in spirit; they represent each cause-and-effect corner of the sordid triangle currently plaguing the rural fields of Punjab. You simply cannot look away and call this an unrealistic or "bad portrayal" of the state. The images of bloodshed, gore, corruption and lifelessness are not as shocking as the truth of nature that causes them.

That this exists close to us, and in a land hitherto revered for mustard fields and its fondness for excesses, is in itself a startling device of awareness. Beneath its pounding soundtrack (Alia's journey into sin is scored to the beautiful "Da Da Dasse," one of the film's many storytelling songs), cinematic transitions and career-best performances lies the soul of an indulgent activist.

You can sense the makers' hearts breaking, as they dig deeper and harder into a world none of us wish we knew about. They're enjoying expressing themselves, but this isn't the kind of achievement they can shout out from rooftops about - much like a bittersweet, guilt-tinged victory over your best friend in a tournament final. It feels a bit unfair that its artistic merit may forever be transcended by the sheer heft and consequences of its subject.

Chaubey, ever the Vishal Bhardwaj protégé, is a riveting storyteller. Not a moment passes without wondering how he has orchestrated a symphony of consecutive disturbances into such a watchable, nervous tragedy. There's a dramatic energy - an original personality - to his use of music, and his identification of silences amidst the gaggle of overcrowded soundscape. Irrespective of how intimate he is with this culture, with the substance-abuse epidemic and its victims, he (with co-writer Sudip Sharma) creates noises you can't tear your eyes away from, and characters you can't - and don't want to - stop hearing.

Earlier on, when Tommy is locked up in jail, two boys inside combine flawlessly to sing him his own explicit song. "Imagined your face when we first injected," they boast proudly, with the glee of squires assuring their King of undying loyalty. They've just murdered their mother to steal money for another fix. All Tommy can do is gape at them, wondering how and when he had acquired a legion of intoxicated killers. A damning epiphany, if ever there was one.

As a passing thought, you recognize here why Indian celebrities are so guarded and "fake" off-screen. They can't control how far their fans will go to emulate them; it's one thing wanting to imitate on-screen personas, and another to swear by every word that rolls off their lips and sermonize every mistake that enters public view.

With this film, though, Alia Bhatt and Shahid Kapoor may gain admirers with a clear understanding of this distinction. Only, these fans would rather be with them than be them. Their stunning transformations will perhaps usher in the "Stars Di Maa Di" era; they immortalize the anti-drug theme so hard that it'd feel downright terrifying to mimic them. Together, they make Udta Punjab a richer, addictive and rather unforgettable flight of un-fancy.

(Note: Mumbai viewers, please stay back after the dozen disclaimers {No to drugs, smoking, animals, cameras}, eight BJP propaganda videos and 'Great Grand Masti' trailer - in descending order of creative vandalism)

First published: 17 June 2016, 9:59 IST
Rahul Desai @ReelReptile

Rahul Desai is a full-time Federer enthusiast and avid traveller who absolutely must find a way to reach Europe once a year. In his spare time, he reviews films, aspires to own a swimming pool and whines about the lack of palatable food in Mumbai.