First Shot Last Shot: Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab

The director talks about the opening and ending scenes of his 2016 drama, starring Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor and Diljit Dosanjh
First Shot Last Shot: Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab

In this series, Gayle Sequeira picks movies of the past decade with great first and last shots and asks directors to break down how they came up with them, shot them and what their significance is.

If the first shot of Udta PunjabAbhishek Chaubey's exploration of the drug menace in Punjab told through four intertwining tales — is a gritty, documentary-style introduction to the problem, the last is a fairytale-esque image of what it's like to escape it. Taken together, they represent Mary Jane's (Alia Bhatt's) full character arc. 

Chaubey talks about how they pulled off that last shot despite a low tide at the beach and why it has more mood than logic:

First Shot

A row of eucalyptus trees sway gently in the breeze. A bike carrying three men makes its way into the frame from the right, as suspense builds slowly. One of the men, an athlete in a 'Pakistan' jersey, alights, paces himself, then hurls a packet of heroin over the border. 

"Most filmmakers tie themselves up in knots over their first and last shots, I think. They're so important. I've fussed over the first images of my other films so much and thought about them for so long. Unlike the first shots of all my other films, however, Udta Punjab's wasn't planned. It was originally going to be just matter-of-fact, I wasn't going for a strong image. It was supposed to be three guys on a bike in the dead of night. So you see the lights of a bike and they get bigger and bigger, and then you see the guys. 

We were shooting far away from Amritsar on a very still and quiet night and the shot just seemed underwhelming. There was a delay, I can't remember why. But I was standing in the corner and the wind suddenly started blowing. There was this row of huge eucalyptus trees and all of them started swaying. Everything had been very still before that. The shot was very Punjab – these huge trees planted in rows in the middle of farmland. If you've travelled here, you'll recognize it immediately. So we quickly brought the camera and the wind lasted just long enough for me to take that shot. By the time we moved on to the next scene, the wind had died. That's a bit of a continuity error – you don't see as much mud blown around in the rest of the scene as you do in the first shot. 

It's a soft start, but it builds quickly and you're into the story right away. I wasn't trying to do anything directorial as such, just telling you the story from the word 'go'. 

The opening scene had come to us early on. When we were doing research, we realized one common way of smuggling drugs across the border was to get these well-built fellows, sometimes athletes, who would just aim the packets across the border. I thought this was hugely funny – you've got these athletes going about their lives, practising in the daytime or going to the gym and by night, they're drug peddlers. Udta Punjab, for all its darkness, also has a very dry sense of humour. Also Punjab doesn't manufacture heroin on its own, all of its heroin comes through Pakistan. Because our story was essentially about what was happening to people within the borders of the Indian Punjab and this film wasn't going to talk about the drug trade or drug nexus outside Punjab, we had only the opening scene to tell you where the drugs were coming from. So the opening scene is the film's entry into Punjab, literally, and the audience's entry into Punjab. We arrive into Punjab with the packet of drugs. 

It took about 7 takes to nail the throwing shot. The guy was a discus player in real life, but the problem was that he'd throw it and then the packet would get out of frame very quickly. So we finally fixed the trajectory of the packet in VFX."

Last Shot 

Mary Jane makes her way to the sea, which until now, she had only seen in her mind's eye, or painted on the billboard outside her captors' house. Finally free, she dives in with a huge smile and swims out of the frame.  

"The ending was about hope, for me. I don't think any government has had much success dealing with the drug problem. Drugs are still flowing into the United States, despite them spending the past 30 years fighting the cartels. Earlier in the film, Kareena Kapoor's character says: You can't fight the system, it's just too big. What you can do is take on the drug problem individually and win. Mary Jane was an example of this. She fought and won. Hopefully, even Tommy managed to do that. But the ending represents hope and that's why we completely change the landscape – we go to Goa, where it's bright and sunny. There's a nice golden light. 

Mary Jane also looks bright and cheerful. We've had the water imagery associated with her earlier in the film – she's locked up and all sorts of atrocities are being committed against her, then she has this trip in which she falls into the water and swims. She sees a light, which is like a 'light at the end of the tunnel' sort of thing, and she swims towards it. At the end of the film, she gets that chance. 

When we'd written the scene earlier, the plan was to also cut to Tommy. He's in jail and has formed his own gang. They're all hanging out together and he's cut his hair differently. We planned to shoot that in Punjab but then ran out of time. Because that scene was not location specific, we decided to do it during our Mumbai shoot. But when we came to Mumbai and started editing the film, we decided to chuck it. There was such a sense of purity and innocence to the last scene and Tommy's bits would've been extra. We ended on that note of warmth. The film starts with her getting that packet and ends with her getting away. So in that sense, the circle is complete. 

We went to Goa for a day to shoot it. There was almost a celebratory atmosphere on set because we'd come from a gruelling schedule in Punjab and just wanted to party. That bit where she's sitting on the beach and then gets up and starts walking to the sea – we started shooting at 3.30 pm and wrapped by 5 pm. We planned that she would walk and go underwater. But it was low tide that day. So she wound up walking around 700 yards before she could go down. So she walked, walked, walked and then I match cut that with a scene we had shot at a pool in Dadar. 

"That shot of a girl walking against the setting sun, towards the ocean, is a very classical image," says Chaubey.
"That shot of a girl walking against the setting sun, towards the ocean, is a very classical image," says Chaubey.

When you're shooting an underwater scene at a pool, it needs certain specifications. Any regular pool won't do because you're trying to recreate that feeling of the sea. And you can't shoot in the sea because the water is so muddy, you won't be able to see the characters. So we needed a pool that was consistently deep, which we found at Dadar. We put a blue screen on the edges and did VFX later to give a sense of depth. Alia had been trained how to swim underwater for a period of time so I could get the image I wanted. I just asked her to smile as widely as she could.

The sun you see in the last shot isn't actually the sun, it's an overhead light. But it gives you the impression of the sun because you've just come from the beach. Continuity is a problem there because when she's walking on the beach, you see the sun setting in the distance. But underwater, the sun is overhead. Unless she'd been swimming for 12 hours, I don't see how that's possible. But I think mood overtakes any logic."

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