It’s been five years since the release of Abhishek Chaubey’s chilling crime drama Udta Punjab, a film which continues to remain relevant and poignant in its storytelling. In an interview, the ace director, along with writer Sudip Sharma, talk about the film’s scripting, making and more. Excerpts:
Riz Ahmed as Tommy Singh?
Abhishek Chaubey (AC): When we started out, we thought that this was going to be a difficult film to produce. I was trying to work out the minimum possible budget for a film like this. Also, before we came to Phantom (Films), there were a couple of other studios that we’d gone to and the vibe wasn’t very positive with regards to the film. We were going to get very less money and that’s how we were conceiving it. And with that idea, I walked into Phantom. And then three of the Phantoms insisted that we can go big with this. The casting took very long. Shahid Kapoor walked in quite early, but the rest of the cast took a very long time.
Sudip Sharma (SS): We also dabbled with the idea of Riz Ahmed at one point of time. We never thought of a Bollywood actor for that role (Tommy Singh). We thought, why don’t we go for a British-South Asian character? Because we really wanted that whole London thing in it. And Riz is a great actor. And I remember walking out of Nightcrawler – he had a small-ish part in that film. He wasn’t that big a star, so we weren’t being that unrealistic and foolish about it. I remember calling Abhishek and saying, ‘Yaar, aap please picture dekho, he’s outstanding and he can really fit Tommy’s part.’ Wishes can be horses when you’re casting.
Pankaj Tripathi Trained Alia Bhatt For The Film
AC: Earlier, when Sudip and I wrote the part, she was supposed to be from Jharkhand. That was the original idea – a tribal girl from Jharkhand. When we started thinking of Alia Bhatt, we decided to change it to Bihar. Although I can speak Bihari very well, I’ve lived in those parts, I couldn’t do it all the way with her. I needed somebody to train her, and Pankaj Tripathi was a brainwave that we had. Not only did he help Alia train in the dialect, he also worked a lot on her body language and also gave her a particular community, which we didn’t mention in the film. He said, ‘There is this community, which is into hockey, in that part of Bihar, they speak a certain way. And a lot of girls play hockey.’ He gave me some context for the character, which was very helpful. Not only did he work on the external elements of her performance, but he was also very emotional about the character when he read the script. He was moved by it, so he also worked on the psychological aspects of her character. We did various theatre exercises, which, I think, was very helpful for Alia. It was very helpful for me as well. There was a moment in the workshop when he was talking about Mary Jane, the character, to Alia, and she was just listening. At one point, she had tears in her eyes. I thought that was actually the moment when she could see herself playing it. So his contribution was immense to her role. He came to the shoot a couple of times; he saw her and said, ‘Mera kaam ho chuka hai.’ He was quite an asset for us.
Originally, Sartaj Was Gruff, And Dr. Preet Was A Man
AC: The doctor’s character was very different earlier. He was supposed to be a man, right?
SS: Yes, Preet’s (Kareena Kapoor Khan) character. While we were writing, it did change. It was supposed to be a man, but finally we settled on changing it to a woman. All the characters evolved, actually. In fact, even Diljit Dosanjh’s character and the journey that he takes – the denouement of it was very different to what’s finally in the film.
AC: When we wrote Diljit’s part, Sartaj Singh, he was a little gruffer in our imagination, more tough and rough. But when Diljit walked in the first day, a few months before we started shooting, he had his own personality, you know? He brought a lot of his own persona to the character, which I think made it a much more rounded character than what we had in our head.
SS: He made him a much softer character, and brought a lot of warmth between Balli and him. That really helped this particular track – which for me, was one of the most important tracks of the film.
It Was Supposed To Have A Darker Ending
SS: It was darker earlier. I remember one draft in which Balli, Sartaj’s brother, was killed off in the end. It had other similar darkness’s written into it. But at some point, we realised that it is a pretty dark film, and maybe we need to leave them with a little hope. The fact that Balli goes through the kind of shit that he does, and in the end, there’s that little silent moment between the two brothers as he starts crying: that could possibly be that little moment of hope – maybe there’s a possibility of this poor kid rebuilding his life all over again. I think it was a good choice to make. That’s one thing I do recall that may not have impacted the plot so much but impacted the way you felt when you walked out of the theatre.
AC: I think maybe the body count was a little more in the first draft. Both of us were deeply unsatisfied at the body count, so we made up for it in Sonchiriya (laughs).
It Took Several Drafts To Create The Tommy-Meets-Mary Scene
AC: I think that scene itself must’ve had twelve or fifteen drafts, because we wrote it various ways. And we struggled with it a lot. We struggled with it so much that I even asked my writer friends and colleagues, ki is scene ko kaise karenge (how should we do this scene)? And everybody came up with their own ideas, and we also discussed it. I remember we were in Goa while shooting the final draft when we decided – if it’s going to be a talking scene, if it’s going to be people screaming at each other, so be it. Who is to say that monologues are a bad idea? We wrote it straight after that. And I think it worked.
SS: The idea of him (Tommy) doing the song (Ikk Kudi) also came there.
AC: Yes, it comes to him over there. He sees her play hockey, and the guitar riff plays there. All those ideas came over there.