Discus throwers come in handy when smuggling drugs across the border. Udta Punjab begins with three kilos of heroin being thrown into India by a Pakistani with obvious athletic credentials. This is not a spoiler. If you want one, read the newspapers of the past few years. Reporters have cried themselves hoarse over a steady supply of drugs from Pakistan. Their effect on Punjab’s youth has also been well documented.
The collusion of policemen and politicians is an ill-kept secret. Even hardened journalists will confess that Punjab’s drug crisis is too tangled to be explained by a single narrative. Director Abhishek Chaubey and co-writer Sudip Sharma, however, have produced a screenplay that hits the nail right on the head. Though layered, the film doesn’t confuse. It decodes.
Movies inspired by news headlines can sometimes be subservient to the reality they hope to reveal. The line between factual documentary and compelling fiction is a thin one, but Chaubey navigates that tightrope with the nonchalance of a high-wire walker. There are four storylines which define Udta, each belonging to an individual protagonist. These narratives intersect, diverge and meet again. The jump from one character to the other, though, is never jarring. Inventive editing by Megha Sen makes sure of that. Much like the ‘system’ it assaults, the film has a flow that’s seamless.
Kareena Kapoor has been deglamourised in Udta Punjab while Diljit Dosanjh has an innocence that seems entirely sincere
Star of Punjabi hits such as Jatt and Juliet and Ambarsariya, Dijit Dosanjh makes his Bollywood debut with an assuredness and innocence that seems entirely sincere. The actor plays the police officer Sartaj Singh, who’s initially seen reaping a fair few benefits in a state that is fast growing to resemble lawless Mexico. It is with some glee that he profits from narcotics he confiscates. But once Doctor Preet Sahani (Kareena Kapoor) shakes Sartaj out of his apathy, Dosanjh becomes the kind of hero a heartbreaking film like Udta sorely needs. Kapoor herself has been deglamourised enough to make you think of those stellar performances in films like Omkara and Dev. Her zeal to rid Punjab of drugs is not lofty, her tone never preachy. Her compassion is felt and her dealings with Sartaj only tender.
Tommy may corrupt the youth, but Shahid Kapoor’s portrayal of the character is convincing in its caution
Playing pop star and self-styled rock god Tommy Singh, Shahid Kapoor brings to Udta a comic relief that hinges not on his wit but the lack of it. A cocaine addict, Tommy at one point wakes up on the floor of his bathroom, looks at his reflection in the toilet bowl and shouts, “Who is the Gabru? I am the Gabru.” He is promptly arrested by Sartaj, who’d been told by a delightfully loyal Satish Kaushik that Tommy was in London. This comedy of errors gives Kapoor an arch to his character, one that he doesn’t break. Tommy may corrupt the youth, but Kapoor’s performance is convincing in its caution.
Alia Bhatt demonstrates a vulnerability and resilience that demands your empathy
Though Udta is not an obviously violent film, it commits a strange violence upon its viewer. Alia Bhatt, who is unrecognisable as a Bihari migrant, makes you feel a pain that’s palpable. Subjected to torture and heroin, Bhatt demonstrates a vulnerability and resilience that forces you to soon cross that line from distant sympathy to a piercing empathy. When she tells Tommy of her trials in Punjab and describes the tribulations of addiction, he asks, “Chhor kyun nahin deti?” She replies, “Punjab ya sui?” The question is simple but achingly poignant. Bhatt is never named in the film. Given the lot of migrant farmhands in India, this lack of a name only renders her tragedy even more desolate. Udta, in the end, belongs to its women. Sometimes they carry hockey sticks and sometimes stethoscopes.
The surface of Punjab’s skin has been punctured by many a needle. Udta Punjab now scratches that surface to lay bare an infected bloodstream. The present it fictionalises is hopeless, but the future of its youth in withdrawal is equally frightful. Watching the film puts the spat between producer Anurag Kashyap and CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani in perspective. Udta, if taken seriously, does have ramifications for Punjab. The film suggests that when a state stares at ruin, the buck and the opium consignment both stop at the door of its politicians. Punjab ought to be under Udta’s influence next.