It is an Olympic year and Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab has a cold open involving discus-throw performed by an athlete from Pakistan. Or should we call it a cold cold-open? Thanks to the censor board controversy – to which no one in the country needs introduction – Udta Punjab has to begin with a disclaimer that is as long as video reviews of films. That is followed by the usual ‘Smoking is Injurious to Health’ video, which is as if you were all set to watch a Quentin Tarantino film and found yourself in the screen showing the latest Pixar product. Then there is another Say No To Drugs image before this cold open of a package of heroin replacing the discus making its way across the border. Chaubey’s point though is, unlike in the Olympic event, it is not about where it lands. It can land anywhere, on anyone, a boy or girl with no name and could alter his or her life beyond measure.
Udta Punjab follows three narratives – one involving the rock star Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor), second with Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) and Dr. Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor), and a third with the Alia Bhatt character who comes across as an unfortunate victim of circumstance. At first, we don’t know how to feel about her or even what to feel about her. But it is all Chaubey’s elaborate ploy, right from keeping her unnamed to tell us how many nameless victims of drug trade exist. Her story becomes the most affecting, not only because it involves more than drug abuse but also the way her character arc is developed. A girl from Bihar with the state hockey team in her eyes finds herself spraying chemicals on the fields of Punjab. At some point, chemicals invade her and she is never the same person. Amit Trivedi’s Da Da Dasse is filmed as she is making her slow walk into hell as Kanika Kapoor goes – aahat se dariyo dariyo re aahat se dariyo dariyo re, khauff ke andar lagge dere. It’s terrific how throughout the film, the music and lyrics compliment the story.
The marvel of Chaubey and Sudip Sharma’s script is that nothing feels like deus ex machina at any point. In fact, quite the opposite. Every character is searching for his or her own version of deliverance. Chaubey often jump cuts between Alia’s story and Tommy’s but the way they are brought together is simply genius at the script level. Chaubey teases you with it several times but never takes the easy route. Just the way he teases you with the background score of Ikk Kudi. It harks back to another great film – Aboorva Sagodharargal (Appu-Raja in Hindi) – where, like here, two kindred spirits are brought together during a chase as they come to terms with each other’s situation. Just like in that film, one character is clueless as to what to do while the other has a firm head on the shoulder. The one with the firm head here is Bhatt even as Tommy proposes a suicide pact. The writing takes its own sweet time to flesh out every story and chooses the tougher route in uniting the characters, both physically and emotionally.
While the emotional hook and heartache emanates from the Tommy-Alia narrative, the procedural story is taken over by guilt ridden police officer Sartaj when he finds out how he’s lost his brother to the drug menace he is paid to overlook. Even here, Sartaj is clueless like Tommy. It’s Dr. Preet who has to hand-hold him through every process and guide him to the plenitude of information they can gather. At one point he says, “saare gabru to sooiyan lagake tight hain madam, ab ladies ko hi kuch karna padega.” This is a theme that governs both the narratives, the doers are Alia’s character and Dr. Preet, Tommy and Sartaj simply follow orders. All of this is helped by superlative performances from the leads. As Sartaj, Dosanjh displays the struggle behind his moral and ethical dilemma as both his department and family is deep into this mess on both the ends. Udta Punjab will possibly rank as Shahid Kapoor’s best performance so far, putting even Kaminey to shame. Playing Tommy the rockstar who is on a higher plane 24×7, Shahid lends credibility to a role that has him doing one insane thing after another till the very last moments of the film. There is nothing about the character that screams calculative. The film though pivots around two of the finest performers we have today – Alia Bhatt and Kareena Kapoor. Bhatt’s character reveals herself during her first encounter with Tommy but in the way Bhatt furiously goes about it makes you wonder if she is talking to herself, at her failings and the disgust behind it. We are already a mess in our perception about her character but to go ahead and intensify it takes a special performance. An intoxicated Sartaj wonders how Dr. Preet is the cleanest soul in a land of filth and says the word – dignity – in his Punjabi accent. There is no better word to describe Kareena Kapoor’s performance, a small part but a solid part as a woman with a mission even as the world around her is losing its head. In those words, Sartaj also foreshadows her arc.
Think of Punjab and the stereotypical thoughts turn towards food. Chaubey doesn’t miss this fact and we see people offering breakfast, buttermilk, lassi, talk about tea stalls or hacking meat. But through it all, he tries to make the point about how drugs are more ubiquitous than glasses of lassi and buttermilk in Punjab, sometimes going hand in hand. There are even little things that he gets right. For example, how incompetent every bastion that is supposed to protect is. Not just the government and police force. In a scene where Sartaj’s brother has overdosed, Preet arrives a little late only to rebuke her subordinate for not turning him over his side (to prevent choking) – kitni baar samjhaya hai (how many times have I told you). Chaubey also loves symmetry. As Bhatt’s character suffers at the hands of every sharp object, it is what she uses to free herself in the end. Tommy who is on a downward spiral even without the drugs, speaks to his reflection in the dirty water inside the commode and after a fit of enlightenment urinates at the public, in part for failing to understand him and partly mad at himself for selling out (this was the single cut ordered by the CBFC that the court retained but what happens is quite apparent from the sequence and it is extremely integral in the larger scheme of things).
One of the finest things about Udta Punjab is it doesn’t wish to take any form of high ground. All it does is tell the story of four characters in a land where drugs are a real problem. It glorifies nothing and it is not a requiem for Punjab. The makers are also well aware of the fact that there are no simplified solutions. It may seem like a happy ending but Udta Punjab ends up painting a grim picture of introspection. That is why a line in a song goes khud se rubaru. That is why Alia Bhatt’s character remains a Jane Doe.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)