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Udta Punjab

BY SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE

Directed by Abhishek Chaubey

Starring: Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Alia Bhatt, Satish Kaushik and Diljit Dosanjh

Ever since the controversies with CBFC (Center Board of Film Certification), there have been innumerable articles on this issue across media informing us, the people of India, about the ongoing menace in Punjab. The movie with 89 cuts manages to explicitly showcase the narco-politics in the state and its horrendous consequences, some of which are worse than death. This is uncompromised cinema – the pacing is so breathless that the overall effect evoked is one of heady awe. This is most definitely a hard-hitting experience. Director Abhishek Chaubey, previously helmed the well-liked Ishqiya and not-so good Dedh Ishqiya, took a step forward and created a niche subject never been attempted on Indian cinema before. Abhishek doesn’t waste any second exploring the superfluous. He sticks to the brief and within the first 10 minutes, gives us a vivid account of how drugs make their way into the country. The film revolves around the chapters of 4 lead characters whose lives have been influenced by the drug menace.

From cocaine to heroin to simply being the best intoxicants imaginable, drugs matter and, as the people behind Udta Punjab are well aware, they overdose. And leading man Shahid Kapoor does go through a lot in the name of Gabru, Gabru and Gabru. We meet the wild, arrogant youth icon Tommy Singh, a London-bred Punjabi pop-star singing songs that echo lyrics of Honey Singh, mouthing profanities, and snorting cocaine. He feeds off the attention, the control, the adulation and the sizzle of the spotlight with his high-on-drug-live-shows, long hairs, French beard, and tattoos all over. Shahid exultantly runs with it, making the character his own with remarkable commitment to the role. He gamely throws himself into all manners of drug-torture and delivers a memorable performance (but one with too much scowl and too little grace). Every now and then he conjures up a special moment.

Meanwhile, in another area, Alia Bhatt’s unnamed Bihari character works in agriculture when she unexpectedly ends up with a packet of cocaine. After estimating its worth to be in millions, she tries selling it off to drug-addicted-youngsters only for her to be captured, made an addict herself and subsequently sexually and physically abused; and prostituted to several men including the police force. Alia Bhatt pours desperation, innocence and ultimate strength into her character. Kareena Kapoor Khan was subtle with infectious glee, quelling her mojo as Preet. Comparatively in a shorter role as a sensible doctor, she gives a glimpse of being more of a crusader against drugs than a medical practitioner. Debutant Punjabi superstar Diljeet lives up to his name winning hearts with his sincere performance changing gears from a mere one-star policeman to a man with the purpose of exposing the evil kingpins who make easy money for peddlers selling heroin and opium through the safe hands of politicians.

The story and the characters are rooted in reality: there’s the politician who runs an anti-drug campaign yet is a secret manufacturer and supplier; the cops, even the very senior police officials are totally involved in smuggling of drugs inside the state; also the fact that they have their share in reaching drugs to young school and college students – to basically anyone who is ready to shell out Rs. 3000/- per gram of powered drug; junkies who will give anything for another fix; and a coked-out rock-star who makes drugs sound sexy to millions of hooked youngsters.

The slow poison is gradually killing the society from the roots. For once, our cinema reflects these ugly truths. And Punjab is captured in such realism (thank goodness, no mustard fields this time). Punjab is nose dipped in the dark world of drugs, and the land of lassi and whiskey is almost on the verge of becoming another Mexico. Language is well taken care off; it’s very true to the way we speak. The unconventional story telling might not be for everyone, but it’s intriguing.

The easy access to the drug factory by Diljit Dosanjh and Kareena Kapoor Khan and dialing-up the childhood hide and seek methods to sneak out without getting noticed by anyone, is kinda indigestible. The climax fight scenes are pretty abrupt which dilutes the impact of the second half. Either way, the film is devastating, visually jaw-dropping that, for all its sins of tedium, makes up with scale what it lacks in craftiness. The art direction is splendid along with creative cinematography. The commitment of the lead actors never flounders even when the script does, sometimes.

Yes, there’s much to nitpick about, especially that whimper of an ending and much, much squandered potential. The film does push the envelope, and the director keeps the pace snappy except for the last half-hour, and like any average audience would attest, pretty much anything can be forgiven if the story looks good enough. The end of the film shows basically a ‘no solution’ scenario. The climatic bout is genuinely thrilling and amidst all the faux sentimentality, we get characters and situations that we can’t help rooting for. That is the film’s real success.

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