Why India shouldn’t miss ‘Udta Punjab’

Abhishek Chaubey learnt the ropes of film-making from stalwarts like Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj.

He helped create memorable characters in some very successful Indie films (Omkara, IshqiyaKaminey, Maqbool) of recent years. These characters were from small towns, had a shifting moral compass and still seemed real and relatable.

That same pedigree is again on display in Udta Punjab where he tells the story of a state in the clutches of drug addiction, from the vantage point of four well written characters.

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Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is the disillusioned punjabi pop star with a chronic drug abuse problem and a nose diving career. Tommy is not only struck by how his own life is being ruined by drugs, but also how his music inspires people to commit unthinkable crimes.

This character also seems like a parody of some recent punjabi rap stars and provides the occasional chuckle. The sheer polarity of the role could have served as a great showcase for an actor to display his prowess. Shahid Kapoor tries hard to sink his teeth into the part and almost succeeds.

But I couldn’t stop imagining if it would have been better to cast an actual punjabi rapper in the role, preferably the one they are making fun of. The music would have definitely been better for it.

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Dr Preeti Sahani (Kareena Kapoor Khan) on the other hand is the “true north” of this story. She is unrelenting, incorruptible and endearing. The few complex scenes that she gets to display her trade in, she grabs with both hands.

But it’s not an author backed role because its unidimensional. So Kareena Kapoor Khan is unlikely to win any awards for this one, which is a shame because it’s such a pleasure to see her do roles that exploit her acting ability, not just her beauty.

That said, her casting is still perfect. In some roles, the beauty of an actress can be distraction but in this one, it’s almost necessary to show the kind of chemistry she develops with Sub Inspector Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh), who I’ll get to in just a little bit.

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When I had seen the film trailers a few months ago, I wasn’t sure that the beautiful and glamorous Alia Bhatt was going to be convincing as the unnamed labourer from Bihar, working shifts in the fields of Punjab. But she emerges as the real surprise of Udta Punjab.

Diljit Dosanjh is comical as the corrupt cop, sincere as the helpless brother and downright adorable as the starstruck lover.

This migrant labourer from Bihar undergoes a tremendous journey and Alia Bhatt ensures that the audience experiences it through her every step of the way.

The filmmakers have hidden the soul of the film in this character because you invest in her the most. Chances are, if you don’t like Alia Bhatt’s acting, you probably won’t like the film and vice versa.

In the company of extraordinary actors, while being handicapped by her make-up and clothes that deliberately try to make her look unappealing, Alia takes a mighty swing at it and hits it out of the park!

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Which brings me to Sartaj Singh. In a film about Punjab, this is the character that makes you care about Punjab the most. Diljit Dosanjh almost personifies Punjab in his portrayal of Sub Inspector Sartaj Singh, as if the part was written for him.

You may empathise with him but you are never required to rescue him or show him sympathy. He is partly responsible for the mess he is in; but also fully capable of pulling himself out of it. That is how you feel about Punjab after seeing the movie.

Close to 860,000 people in Punjab (4.5% of the state’s population) have “used drugs” at some point in their life and 230,000 people have already been declared “drug dependant”.

Diljit Dosanjh is comical as the corrupt cop, sincere as the helpless brother and downright lovable as the starstruck lover.

Unfortunately, this film is not without its flaws. Megha Sen’s editing of Udta Punjab is pedestrian at best. The film hurries through moments that should have lingered so the audience could have really absorbed the drama and it drags along on plot points that are a distraction to the main narrative.

It feels like the writers had a great premise to the story but didn’t quite know how to tie it up in the end. As a result of that, Abhishek Chaubey also over-cashes on happenstances. There is more than one moment when you go “But how did he…? Or… Where did they…?”

In a time when the audience is being overwhelmed by superhero smash fests, physical comedies and disaster movies almost every week – Udta Punjab is a rare attempt at combining the appeal of a commercial film with the earnestness of an Indie movie while highlighting a very important, although often over-looked, problem the Indian society is facing.

Udta Punjab has its moments where it soars impressively, but never comes close to achieving the very lofty ambition it sets for itself.

But this movie has great relevance in modern day India and more importantly, it has purpose.

In February-April 2015, NGO Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM) and AIIMS experts conducted the Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey (PODS) to assess drug abuse situation in Punjab.

According to this survey, close to 860,000 people in Punjab (4.5% of the state’s population) have “used drugs” at some point in their life and 230,000 people have already been declared “drug dependant”.

These percentages are significantly higher than the rest of the country, or the rest of the world. They are also probably very conservative because they don’t count for teenagers under the age of 15.

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Credit has to be given to the makers of this film, for bringing this issue to the front pages of all newspapers and prime time TV debates.

Martyred Indian Army Captain Manoj Pandey had said “Some goals are so worthy, it’s glorious even to fail in their pursuit”. This applies to Udta Punjab more than any other movie in recent times. You can’t quite overlook the obvious flaws of the film, but you still come out admiring the effort.

Have you seen the movie yet? I’d love to know what you thought about it.

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