Days after the release of Udta Punjab, director Abhishek Chaubey says very few have understood his film
If filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey had his way, Udta Punjab would have been a small indie with lesser-known actors. The way he looked at it, this dark and violent drug drama he had written was coming close on the heels of his last film Dedh Ishqiya, which won him several compliments but had weakened his box office credentials. “I didn’t think anybody would want to work with me. Sudip (Sharma, his co-writer) and I had worked it all out – we would make this film on a tight budget and not take any money for it. Then maybe it would be easier to find a producer,” says Chaubey. He eventually snagged a dream team, but was right about one thing – this wasn’t going to be an easy film to make. In the three years that went into creating Udta, the challenges were many, but none that prepared him for the trauma of this last month.
Sitting on a couch in his Andheri home, Chaubey tries to recollect where he was this time, last week. Given the series of blows he was dealt with – an unscrupulous CBFC diktat, court cases and an online leak 48 hours before the release – he takes a minute to mentally recap the nightmare. “Oh, at this point I still didn’t know if my film was releasing. There were cases pending in the Supreme Court,” he recalls. “My team had just finished the final print. We brought some alcohol to the office to celebrate but couldn’t do anything. In the last 10 days, it was the lawyers and courts that were making the film. Not me.”
Somewhere through this living hell, Chaubey remembers writing to his producers – Madhu Mantena and Vikas Bahl of Phantom – accepting defeat. His attempts to reason with the CBFC were proving to be increasingly futile and exhausting. “It’s really ridiculous what goes on in a censor board meeting. It’s almost like some sort of bargaining that happens – Yeh ‘bh******d nikaldo aur wahaan pe g***u daal do. It’s a farce. I was seriously contemplating just giving in at one point,” he says. But producer Anurag Kashyap would have none of that. From scathing Twitter posts to hosting press conferences, he left no stone unturned in proclaiming war open on the CBFC. Without Kashyap’s voice, Chaubey says it’s unlikely he would have survived this public battle. “I’m not a media savvy person and I don’t enjoy being on front of a camera. I’m just not the crusader type,” he explains.
Of all the 80-something cuts that the CBFC demanded, the one that hurt the most was being asked to remove all references to Punjab. The obvious stupidity of that suggestion aside, it defeated the very purpose of making the film. What was initially conceived as a “cool and trippy” film on drugs turned into a social cause once Chaubey and Sharma began researching the drug menace in Punjab. They knew the film had to go way beyond the uninformed representation of drug abuse Hindi films have seen till now. “The only films that I remember touching upon it was Jalwa and Janbaaz (1986). But in Janbaaz too, it was so generic. They said stuff like, ‘isko drugs de dete hain’ as if it is a disprin.”
In Udta, the drug-addled characters– Balli (the younger brother of Diljit Dosanjh’s character Sartaj) or the young fans of pop star Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) jailed for murdering their mother – were derived from the horrific first-hand experiences of teenagers they met at rehab centres in Punjab. “This film happened because of what we saw in Punjab. The sense of responsibility actually overwhelmed us as we met people there. We decided that we are going to go out and tell people about the extent of the problem and tell the Punjabis what this is doing to them. That became our goal,” he says. There’s unanimous praise pouring in, and yet Chaubey says not everyone has grasped the intent of Udta. “Some very erudite writers on films haven’t gotten it. They’ve written very well about it and I appreciate their critique, but overall what we were trying to do, very few have understood,” he says.
But the real scars of this long-drawn battle are yet to reveal themselves. Now that he knows that naming a dog Jackie Chan or showing a coked-up rock star urinating into the crowds can be suicidal for a film, Chaubey hopes he doesn’t inadvertently start curbing his creative voice. “I just don’t want to become cautious. And there is a fear of that happening. I’ll only know when I start writing again. Time will tell.”