Starring: Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Diljit Dosanjh.
Dir by Abhishek Chaubey
Abhishek Chaubey has made two Ishqiya crime capers so far. The controversial Udta Punjab takes him into another league. With its heavy promotion and then the cause celebre status, curiosity carried the film through its first weekend. In keeping with the style of filmmaking adopted by co-producer Anurag Kashyap (the other being Ekta Kapoor), the film is dark, bleak and full of profanity.
What Abhishek Chaubey has done with Udta Punjab is broken the image of Punjab that Bollywood has so carefully built, as a state of happy-go-lucky, bhangra-dancing, family-loving people. Of the two families fleetingly seen in the film, one consists of criminals and the other is so clueless that they are unaware when a young son gets addicted to drugs. When a drug-peddling patriarch says, “Kucch nahin hona Punjab ka, zameen banjar, te aulad kanjar,” it comes as more of a shock than all the cusswords. How did India’s agrarian paradise end up as a drug-addled inferno ‘like Mexico’, as another character says, and why?
The film’s opening disclaimer puts the blame on Pakistan, and the first scene has a man throwing a tightly packed, discus-shaped stash of cocaine across the border. It is also naive to blame cocaine-snorting rap-star Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) for ‘spoiling’ Punjab’s youth. (He sings numbers like Chittave and Coke-Cock in praise of the white powder.)
Where the malaise really lies, Chaubey is not interested in investigating. Of his four main characters, the only one who grabs sympathy is that of Bihari farm labourer Pinky (an outstanding Alia Bhatt), whose desire to get out of her wretched circumstances just makes her descend into hell—she is captured, injected with drugs and kept locked up as a sex slave. Sartaj (a charming Diljit Dosanjh) is a corrupt cop who realises his mistake when his own brother almost dies of an overdose. Kareena Kapoor plays, with brisk efficiency, a doctor who also runs a rehab centre for addicts. Sartaj and she try to expose the manufacture and supply chain—their faith in the election commission and the media is touching. Shahid’s Tommy is a part-jester, part-cautionary figure, even though he brings a demented energy to his performance. There is a scene in which Tommy is in jail with a bunch of young men, one of whom says he is there because he killed his mother because she wouldn’t give him money. A few more stunners like this, and Udta Punjab would perhaps have made some kind of impact apart from becoming one more freedom of expression poster child.