Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab opens with trees swaying in the breeze at night, topped by a handful of stars. The calm composition is held for a while, but soon, light from a motorcycle pierces this idyll. The sound too. Three men are on the bike. “Packet nikaal,” someone says. You think they’re going to do drugs, but a man who’s gotten off the bike begins to limber up, like an athlete. Just what is going on? The background, so far filled with sounds of nature, begins to throb with a high-pitched electronic squeak. And then, the man on the ground takes the packet and, in the style of a discus thrower, launches it into the sky. I laughed at the near-surrealism – the packet freezes in mid-air, and the film’s title appears on it. It’s a literal image of “udta Punjab,” even though the scene lends itself to metaphors. For instance, a serene paradise invaded, desecrated. The electronic squeaks grow louder and form a sonic bridge to a very different scene. Night gives way to eye-blinding light. Silence gives way to ear-splitting sound. We land at the venue of a concert by Tommy (Shahid Kapoor) – he’s high on drugs, and he’s singing about getting high on drugs. Over the song, we see rich kids snorting up in posh nightclubs, we see poor men in shacks shooting up, we meet the cop Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh), we meet the rehab doctor Preet (Kareena Kapoor). In just about five minutes, various departments of cinema – sound, cinematography, music, writing, editing – have nutshelled the premise, the characters from various social classes (the fourth, a Bihari migrant worker played by a tanned Alia Bhatt, picks up the packet as it lands). The audience needs no drugs. The filmmaking is its own high.
Nothing in the rest of the film lives up to the inventiveness and economy of this opening stretch, but the closing half-hour is impressive too. A victim of the drug trade, being held prisoner, attempts to escape. A metal rod – used as a clothes hanger, probably – is yanked off a wall and plunged into the captor. Over the jab-jab-jab of this violence, Amit Trivedi stabs us with staccato bursts of sound – the music does to us what’s being done to the man. (Trivedi’s songs are beautifully integrated into the story, but it’s the background score that stands out, forsaking musicality for mood, melodic passages for ambient sound.) In another magnificent scene, Tommy finds himself in a police lockup, in front of a man who has some information he needs. Small catch: the man has recognised him, and he won’t spill unless Tommy sings. Outside, cops have discovered that the door is latched from the inside, and they begin to push. Over the sound of the rattling latch, Tommy begins to sing. He sings like he’s never sung before. The man is transfixed. And we note that the cops outside are too – the rattling has stopped. It restarts only when Tommy finishes and flees.
Between the magical five minutes that open the film and the lyrical half-hour that closes it, we’re left wondering: “What happened to all the magic and poetry?” We form expectations about a film based on who’s making it, who’s producing it, who’s in it – and I expected something with a strong indie vibe, something like the gravely affecting Miss Lovely, which took us into a strange and seedy world (soft-porn filmmaking) through offbeat characters and situations, making us feel for these unfortunates even as we felt repelled by them and thanked heaven we weren’t them. It’s not Chaubey’s job to deliver on my expectations, of course, but he heads off in a bafflingly mainstream direction. The punishingly long Udta Punjab is the equivalent of a self-important IAS candidate’s over-earnest essay, Punjab’s Children: Victims of Narco Trade. (I didn’t make this title up. We see this essay being typed up on Preet’s computer screen.)
I suppose the intent was to make something like Traffic, with multiple storylines laying out the magnitude of a malaise, but a majority of Udta Punjab comes across like an information dump. Punjab will soon become like Mexico, where there are no cops, only druglords. The cops in Punjab are complicit, taking commissions and letting through trucks carrying drugs. If you’re an addict, you take to wearing sunglasses even at home. Every scene screams, “We did all this research and we’re going to share it all with you.” Everything is spelt out in dialogues. It isn’t enough that the Alia Bhatt character (in a gimmicky conceit, she remains unnamed) looks longingly at a billboard that positions Goa as an exotic holiday destination – she also gets a scene where she talks to Tommy about this billboard, about her dream of going to Goa. It isn’t enough that Tommy brandishes a gun at his uncle (Satish Kaushik, who’s terrific), and we register that withdrawal from drugs can induce as much bizarre behaviour as taking them – we also get the follow-up, with the uncle explaining that such bizarre behaviour is only to be expected when withdrawing from drugs. Poor Kareena Kapoor gets the worst deal. She’s the mouthpiece for the film’s PSAs. I nearly fell off my chair when she said, “Drugs are taken by one person, but the impact falls on the whole family.” Lady, you don’t say! And we need Phantom Films for this?
I come back to the icky thing about expectations, but after all the fuss with the Censor Board, I thought the edge factor was off the charts – so imagine my surprise when I caught myself sitting through the most sanskaari drug movie ever. Karma is everywhere. The cop who turned a blind eye to drug use in his state is punished when his brother turns out to be an addict, to the same substance that went past him in trucks. The person who decides to sell drugs is punished, turned into an addict for even thinking of doing something this heinous. And the singer who endorses drug use is shown the error of his ways. One scene, and he’s a changed man. His eyes open as if shown God’s light, and he seeks redemption for getting kids hooked on to drugs by freeing someone from drugs. He gets the film’s most awful line. When escaping from angry fans, he takes refuge in a dilapidated mansion (which may be a metaphor for something; almost everything in this film is), where someone asks, “Kisse bhaag raha hai?” He replies, “Apne aap se.” Didn’t Zeenat Aman’s druggie offer some version of this line four decades ago in Hare Rama Hare Krishna? And the inevitable question follows: What, apart from the admittedly gorgeous filmmaking, is new?
But yes, the filmmaking is gorgeous. Most of the characters are just abstracted pawns in the film’s grand drug-exposé design, generic representations of various facets of the drug trade rather than specific people, with specific inner lives – but the flashes of character, when they do arrive, are wonderful. Sartaj’s druggy declaration of interest in Preet is a marvellously woozy moment, and the way the Alia Bhatt character’s past is revealed through an action scene is pure genius. Throughout, the link between her and Tommy is foreshadowed through the editing, which cuts from her astonished face (on realising the money she stands to make by selling drugs) to his stunned face (finding himself in prison), or from a shot of her in water (a hallucination that also links to Goa) to him in a swimming pool. Chaubey belongs to the Vishal Bhardwaj school, and his detailing is impressive, immersive, with unexpected links cross-stitching the narrative canvas. When Tommy reveals his name to the Alia Bhatt character, she asks if he’s a dog – a later scene between them actually involves a dog. You feel like clapping and throwing someone a bone.
Udta Punjab follows films like Shanghai, where a top-notch cast and crew cannot disguise the truth that the underlying material, all these revelations, are so banal – and the banality is heightened by the surrounding aspirations to High Art. Scenes with barely anything interesting in them are allowed to go on and on, with dialogues that are distractingly “writerly.” And for all the Manmohan Desai-like coincidences, with people stumbling into each other, the film is too high-minded to simply entertain. Tommy’s search for a missing person has shades of a detective story, and the Sartaj-Preet duo’s snooping around is reminiscent of the great films about investigative journalism – but there are no thrills, no rush. Scenes are prolonged till all the juice in them evaporates. Tommy is fired by his recording company, and then he throws a tantrum on the road, and then he sees the recording-company executives in the car that pulls up alongside, and then there’s a chase, and then there’s a surprise birthday party, and then the cops come… At some point, between all the sermons and the self-righteousness, I felt like echoing what Tommy’s fans say when, instead of singing, he lapses into a maudlin account of his misguided life. Gaana ga, ya vaapas ja.
The cast saves the film to an extent. Shahid Kapoor plays Tommy as a cartoony bunny rabbit whose every expression is an exclamation point – you don’t take him seriously for a second, but it’s entertaining to see him push himself into this weird zone, strands of dyed hair flailing about like limp pasta. Kareena Kapoor embodies what Sartaj says about her: dignity. I wished she’d had at least a moment or two to cut loose, or at least lose the halo. Diljit Dosanjh is a quiet marvel – he shows us a man of limited intelligence without making him stupid. Alia Bhatt isn’t as convincing here as she was in Highway, her other film where she broke expectations of what an actress like her should be seen doing on screen, but then, her character doesn’t have that much of an arc here. Still, she makes us care. As with the others, she does more for the movie than the movie does for her.
- Udta Punjab = Punjab is high.
- Packet nikaal = take out the packet
- sanskaari = traditional
- “Kisse bhaag raha hai?” = Who are you running from?
- “Apne aap se.” = From myself.
- Shanghai = see here
- Gaana ga, ya vaapas ja. = sing, or get lost.
- Highway = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.