With its unsentimental story and script, the film shows us what the horrifying statistics on drugs in Punjab truly mean.
In an early scene in Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab, Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor), Punjab’s biggest pop star, chases the car of a music studio baron. Tommy is furious because his album contract fell through and the man in the car is responsible. In the next scene, we see Tommy from the man’s point of view in the front seat of the car. Tommy is shouting and cursing as he runs, but we can’t hear him, only see him. Tommy, who was snorting cocaine a few minutes ago, looks tired. He also looks comical, as addicts often do to those unfamiliar with the influence of drugs: angry, agitated and restless in a brief period of time, without a reason. In a few hours, Tommy will calm down and begin to think straight, but then it’ll be time for another hit.
Later, it’s implied that the man, with the help of a few political contacts, has gotten Tommy arrested. Tommy is an incorrigible addict who should ideally spend his afternoons in a rehab centre, as opposed to a recording studio. The drug trade in Punjab keeps giving Tommy his high, but he’s just a consumer or, more accurately, a victim. In fact, it’s the people at the top of the drug chain – the politicians, the cops, the bureaucrats – who are perpetually tripping: on their power and privilege, on the knowledge that they have rendered an entire generation useless, robbing them of choice.
If drug addiction is an endless cycle that keeps repeating itself, offering neither hope nor respite, then Udta Punjab’s principal characters, even those who aren’t addicts, are stuck at some point in their lives.
Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh), an assistant inspector with the Punjab police, is stuck with his peers and in a system that treats him like a cog in the wheel, not allowing him to effect any substantial change. Preet Singh (Kareena Kapoor), a doctor who also runs a rehab centre, has the capability of saving addicts from dying, but her ambition of reforming them remains unfulfilled because of a lack of social awareness. A Bihari migrant (Alia Bhatt, whose name in the movie isn’t revealed) longs to escape her kidnappers and rapists. Tommy wants to step out of his mould and make meaningful music, but the paying public, his fans, love him for what has been his forte: regurgitating songs centred on drugs.
Even if Udta Punjab didn’t deal with drug abuse in Punjab, the film, due to the unique characters it constructs, would still be a compelling drama.
The characters comprise a motley group that, refreshingly for a Bollywood film, cuts across classes. They are foils for each other and those affected by the drug trade, which is implicative of its reach in the state. Sartaj has only passed BA with third division, while Preet is, expectedly, more sophisticated; Tommy is a star but lacks poise; Bhatt’s character, a poor and desperate outsider in a drug-riddled state, who can’t speak its language, is the quintessential marginalised migrant. Given that they have different social standings, how these four characters could mingle and become part of one story isn’t obvious – but this is precisely where Sudip Sharma and Chaubey’s writing soars: it is an ingenious mix of smarts and art.
Narratives within a narrative
For most of the film’s first half, there are pauses at the key dramatic moments in the individual stories, so that the audience is continuously invested in their outcomes.
However, Sharma and Chaubey gradually reduce these narrative segments, so that it’s easy to keep pace with the overall story. For instance, by making Preet work with Sartaj – a writing choice that makes both thematic and logical sense – the film only juggles three different stories after a point. And by the time Tommy meets Bhatt’s character – the climax of the film – there are only two main stories to follow.
The different stories seem to ‘find’ each other and converge naturally, not as a result of screenwriting convenience. Even when the writing suffers from a few flaws – Bhatt’s Bihari twang is quite unconvincing, at times even having an unintended comical effect, just as Preet and Sartaj’s investigation into the illicit drug trade seems facile – it’s not for the lack of effort.
At the beginning of the film, even though one story cuts to the next with a lot of élan, the film feels incomplete and clinical, for its emotional core is missing. But Chaubey and Sharma correct that post-interval, where the story with its sub-plots becomes heartfelt and disturbing, searing with tension and meaning, while maintaining its focus and purpose.
An unflinching view
But what’s even more impressive is the fact that Chaubey doesn’t preach or try to educate us about the political and social dangers of drugs, about how they are resulting in an entire generation of slaves: young men with plump veins and droopy eyes who will do anything for their next hit.
In Udta Punjab, the characters act and face the consequences of their actions: it’s as simple as that. Tommy’s descent into the depths of addiction costs him not only moral and physical degradation, but also a loss of identity – in an oddly comical scene, he is mistaken for his lookalike. It affects his fans – young teenagers and adults who emulate him even though he is himself clueless – and their families, as they are left clutching onto hope. It makes the victims scavengers and the orchestrators beasts who will dupe, molest and murder – do just about anything to keep the machine churning.
Till now, we’ve only read, and been told, about Punjab’s drug problem. The numbers are horrifying – an annual consumption of opioids worth Rs 7,500 crore, by nearly 9 lakh users – but Udta Punjab shows us what they truly mean: a fourteen-year-old banging the locked door of his own house, desperate to leave his family for drugs; a young girl chewing a discarded chicken bone; a performer who can’t differentiate between singing and snorting. In Udta Punjab – or, let’s just say it, in Punjab – drugs are easy to procure and easier to snort, inhale and inject, producing a kick that lasts for a few hours. But the scars, both physical and psychological, remain far longer – holding in their sway lakhs of individuals who have forgotten to sleep, and forgotten to wake up.
What was all the fuss about?
Udta Punjab‘s run-in with the Central Board of Film Certification has made news over the last few months, but, after watching the film, you’ll be surprised that there even was a controversy in the first place. Because nothing in the film warranted the aggressive censorship the board was pushing. Sure, there is a lot of cussing in Udta Punjab, but it’s not without context: a major part of the film revolves around characters doing drugs, frequently finding themselves in danger; as a result, their swearing sounds natural, not gimmicky.
Similarly, the references to various towns in the state are also integral to the film, as these show the expanse of the illicit drug trade – a fact that gives dramatic mileage to the film (and, in any case, isn’t untrue).
However, despite the Bombay high court’s intervention in getting the film cleared with one scene partially chopped, the filmmakers still had to include a long disclaimer, saying Punjab is just a highway of the illicit drug trade, and not its active consumer, and that people in the cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Goa are facing similar problems.
This problematic disclaimer was shown twice during the screening, at the start and in the interval – something that, in my experience of film-watching in this country, hasn’t ever happened before. And on each occasion, it was accompanied by four one-minute ads, called ‘my country is changing,’ about the exemplary work done by the Narendra Modi government in the last two years. The juxtaposition of these two segments couldn’t be more ironic.