Review: Udta Punjab

I’ll be writing the occasional film review for Hindustan Times. If you’d like the concise, printed version, click here. The unedited version is below.

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On the face of it, Udta Punjab has everything going for it. Shahid Kapoor spends much of his screen time shirtless: win. He’s in a film with Kareena Kapoor Khan: another win (even if they don’t have a single scene together). Alia Bhatt delivers a virtuoso performance as a migrant worker. Diljit Dosanjh makes his Bollywood debut, shows off his comic timing as well as hero-wallah charm, sings a hauntingly lovely song and gets the girl (sort of). The cinematography by Rajeev Ravi is stylish, clever and breathtakingly beautiful in moments, without ever seeming contrived. The subject — drug abuse in Punjab — is provocative and the controversies surrounding the film’s certification have generated at least double the publicity that a conventional promotional campaign would have managed.

There’s a lot in Udta Punjab that director and writer Abhishek Chaubey gets right and perhaps his biggest achievement is the wry tone of storytelling. Udta Punjab is made up of depressing stories, but even while being sensitive to this toxic problem that’s clogging Punjab’s veins, Chaubey’s direction and co-writer Sudip Sharma’s punchy dialogues manage to keep the despair at bay. Little asides and nuances will make you smile — like how the drug suppliers vicious Doberman is named Jackie Chan, or the conversation that two cops have about whether a truck driver is trying to turn Punjab into Mexico.

Chaubey also draws powerful performances from almost everyone in his cast except Shahid and Kareena. This is ironic because they’re probably the names that got the film greenlit ultimately. Yet Kareena sleepwalks her way through the film, as though her alabaster complexion will distract the viewer from the bland portrayal of a crusading doctor. At least Shahid tries hard. Unfortunately, Tommy Singh is a mess on the page and no amount of prancing around shirtless can solve that problem. To begin with, what exactly is Tommy? A DJ without a console? A pop star without a song and only an electronica track? A rock star who jumps around to synthetic beats? And what is that “coke-cock” song? At one point, while talking about himself, Tommy blithely refers to being “number 3 on the Asian underground charts” and then in the next sentence tells us he’s a “pop fucking star”. There’s just one teeny little problem: electronica isn’t the same as pop music.

Udta Punjab hopes that Shahid’s high energy, bad wig and bare chest will be enough to woo the audience, and to be fair, he is enjoyable to watch even if he does an unconvincing job of playing a functioning drug addict. When you look for logic or depth or realism, there’s none. If everyone who snorted cocaine behaved like Tommy does, Bollywood party photos would be very different from what we see on Page 3. The problem with Tommy is that fun as he is, Shahid fails to make him more than a collection of hollow stereotypes — the eccentric, the stoner, the rock star, the dude, and (of course) the saviour.

If Udta Punjab was an average Bollywood film, then these two star performances wouldn’t have stood out for their mediocrity. Unfortunately for them, Alia Bhatt and the supporting cast — particularly the dirty cop Jujhar Singh and the teenaged drug addict Balli — are brilliant. They’ve all immersed themselves in their roles, even if it is that of a two-bit junkie, and this lifts the writing immeasurably. Almost every character is clichéd in terms of the writing, but the acting and direction make them feel powerfully real. The young man playing Balli has barely three lines in the film, yet he stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre. Bhatt’s role should have been a minor one, but she is magnificent as the migrant worker trapped in a drug lord’s mansion. She fills out the barely-there character, which is as hackneyed as Tommy’s rock/pop/DJ star, with her sensitive performance. More power to Bhatt for not just picking a role that few in the industry would have the guts to, but also making us fall in love with a woman who’s fallen, beaten, brutalised, yet never broken.

What Udta Punjab deserves the loudest round of applause for, though, is its brave politics. Admittedly, there’s little by way of insight, but the film does lay bare how selfishly Punjab’s politicians have encouraged drug abuse, particularly while campaigning during elections. The fact that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) got twitchy about the representation of how politicians smuggle drugs to their constituencies says volumes about the CBFC — lest we forget, these are political appointments. Not just that, Bhatt as the dispossessed and exploited worker is incandescent when she delivers a furious rant about all the awful, self-destructive decisions that she’s taken because she fell for the promise of “achchha time”. Surely the word “achchha” is not a casual pick and perhaps it will make those in the audience wonder what bad decisions they’ve taken in the hope that it will usher in good times.

And yet, for the flash, dazzle and power of Udta Punjab, the film is ultimately deeply dissatisfying. As laudable as its ambitions may be, it fails to rise above clichés. Chaubey struggles to weave together and do justice to the many strands that make up its plot. For instance, the film begins with a beautiful little episode involving a Pakistani shot putter, but the across-the-border angle is left unexplored. The love stories in the film waste precious time and are half-baked while Tommy Singh is excessively baked. Post-interval, coincidences are as prevalent as drugs in Punjab, making it ludicrously simple for an earnest doctor and cop duo to unearth the nexus between politicians and drugs suppliers. Blood spurts, bullets are fired and all hell breaks loose for little ostensible reason other than the fact Chaubey needs to tie up the many loose ends. When the film ends up on a beach in Goa — because that, ladies and gentlemen, is where you go to get away from drug abuse — and the girl rescued from Punjabi drug lords rechristens herself “Mary Jane”, then all you can do is roll your eyes. It’s not just a juvenile joke. It makes a mockery of everything that the film has shown before.

Still, Udta Punjab may be the most ambitious film Chaubey has made so far. It’s also his weakest, but perhaps he’s had to edit and tone down the film he’d wanted to make in the process of getting a producer on board. However, the fact that Chaubey chose this topic and was able to make the film is cause for good cheer. We can only hope that the controversy with the CBFC won’t make Bollywood back away from projects like Udta Punjab and funding Chaubey’s next one. Because even at his weakest, Chaubey’s Udta Punjab is head and shoulders above the average Bollywood fare.

Udta Punjab: the dilemma of a film reviewer

It’s a film that a lot of us want to love, given how the CBFC has tried to yank its chains. But should you be kinder to a film because it was harder to get it released? Or should you just see a film for what is on screen? I ponder on this here

For those too lazy to click, read on. (But come on, you can click, right? If not for the article, then for a photo of Shahid Kapoor as Tommy Singh?)

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Yesterday evening, there was a press show organised by the publicity team of Udta Punjab. Usually, this is an unremarkable occurrence, but this pretence that Udta Punjab was like any other film about to be released was the final act of resistance by its director and producers. It isn’t. This is a film that has been victimised by the Central Board of Film Certification to the extent that Bombay High Court rapped the CBFC’s knuckles for demanding unreasonable cuts.

Days after that judgment, a print of the film mysteriously appeared on torrent sites. It had the words “For Censor” on the left hand corner and a ticking time stamp at the centre of the frame. Rumours started floating that “someone” in the CBFC had leaked it out of spite. (On yesterday’s super prime time on Times Now, filmmaker Ashoke Pandit made it amply clear that the film could not have been leaked from anyone other than the CBFC.) If that’s true, then the CBFC really doesn’t care much about the tender sensibilities of Indian audiences because the version that’s floating online is without the cuts that the CBFC had prescribed. Also, if the CBFC really is behind this move, then Pahlaj Nihalani evidently knows more about illegal downloading than he does about the films he censors and certifies without seeing.

It’s a shame he didn’t discuss this classy move with the Department of Telecom — perhaps then the DoT would have instructed internet service providers to unblock access to torrent sites.

However, even for the technologically challenged, the DoT barricades are barely an obstruction. And so, by Thursday night, a day before the official press show, a significant number of people had seen Udta Punjab for free online. Not just that, they’d seen the version that director Abhishek Chaubey had intended for the audience — with all abusive language in place and Tommy Singh peeing on a crowd. They know that Udta Punjab is a fun, gory and dissatisfying film that is far from being Chaubey’s best work. It doesn’t offer much beyond the obvious, in terms of insight into Punjab’s drug problem. Those who have seen it also know that the script lacks the cleverness that characterised Chaubey’s previous films. They know Kareena Kapoor is the film’s bimbo, successfully flattening a good role to seem like an extension of a cosmetics commercial. They’ve seen Alia Bhatt prove yet again what a magnificent talent she is with her portrayal of a nameless migrant worker. Shanatics have had their chance to ogle at Shahid Kapoor’s bare torso as he worked hard and struggled at delivering a credible performance as the unpredictable Tommy Singh. However, if there is a moment when their hormones don’t swamp their judgement, they’ll have to accept Bhatt and Diljit Dosanjh are the real stars of Udta Punjab.

With the leaked version freely available, the press show organised on Thursday was irrelevant. Only those feeling particularly loyal to Chaubey and Kashyap (while turning a blind eye to the films and television shows they have queued up in their downloads) or with terrible internet connections would have not seen the film. And yet Udta Punjab had a press show. More than a publicity effort, it was a plea. It was a reminder to the press of how difficult it is to release a film that isn’t formulaic, and how badly the film needs the support of the press.

This places the average film reviewer in a quandary. They’re not just watching and writing about any old film in case of Udta Punjab. They’re commenting upon censorship in Indian cinema.

Most of us forget that censorship isn’t limited to the CBFC. For Indian cinema, it’s a tortuous process that begins from the moment a script is brought out to find producers and stars who will act in it. At every stage, the film will have to be modified because if it has any element of provocation or reality in it, everyone gets cold feet. Anything that’s unformulaic scares the commercial film industry. As a result producers, script consultants and general know-it-all advisors who listen to a ‘narration’ — because god forbid these people actually read the script themselves — shake their heads at the parts that seem adventurous and say “audience won’t accept”. Sometimes, they’ll attempt logic by pointing to other films based on real incidents, most of which haven’t “worked” at the box office and need more “mass” or “commercial” elements.

And so, scene by scene, detail by detail, song by song, the script changes. Then, in the process of being shot, the story changes again. A star refuses to say a line, a scene can’t be shot because of technical problems, local political party workers disrupt a shoot and it’s too expensive to redo the scene, the weather isn’t cooperating — the problems that a film crew face range from banal to bizarre.

The net result, though, is that the story of the film changes, yet again.

Consequently, by the time a film reaches the CBFC, it’s already been censored by the producer, whose priority is usually just to make sure the film releases and is box office-friendly, and circumstances. Despite the game face that directors put on while being asked about their films, very rarely is it the film they wanted to make, especially when it’s about a topic as complex as Udta Punjab.

So what is the responsibility of a reviewer? Do you applaud the decision to make a film that’s bold, that has its ear to the ground and challenges the hackneyed rubbish that Bollywood usually feeds us? Or do you just see the film as a film, ignoring the herculean effort that’s gone into bringing it to life?

 

On Marriage

There are certain things I hadn’t imagined. One of them was me being in India Today’s annual sex-survey issue. Read it here, illustrated by a sketch by FN Souza (whee!). For those who are lazier, et voila:

 

Let’s play a game. What comes to mind the moment you hear the word marriage? Matrimonial ads detailing caste and complexion? Weddings that leave families bankrupt? More bills to pay? Jokes about hen-pecked husbands? Counselling? Meddling in-laws? Messy children and/ or messier divorce? If you’re among the tiny percentage that thought “happily ever after”, go give your spouse a hug and/or return to your Mills and Boon.

Given what we hear and see of marriage around us, it’s a wonder this institution has any takers. In popular culture, being married is basically an excuse for family melodrama. Real life isn’t much better. The happiest of couples will tell you it’s “hard work” and invariably end up using words like “responsibility” and “compromise”. Worse than those who gaze longingly and say they miss their single years are the ones who talk about the fun they had as a newly-married couple like they’re discussing the Indus Valley civilisation – with nostalgia shimmering in their eyes, making it patently obvious that fun has left the building. And then there are the separations, divorces and alimony scandals.

With this sort of a publicity campaign, it’s not surprising that the next generation of adults isn’t tempted by matrimony. According to this year’s survey, one fourth of India’s youth (aged 18-26) have been in a relationship for more than four years, but are still not married. It’s the sort of statistic that strikes terror into the hearts of middle class parents. But if the best we can say about being married is that it starts off as fun and within a few years, is either boring or headed for a divorce, we’re really not selling the institution very well.

Marriage’s biggest problem is that it evolved into a romantic institution in the middle of the 20th century, when events like the decline of imperialism and the World Wars disrupted the existing status quo all over the world. Women stepped out of households in India and abroad to engage in politics and public affairs, only to discover just how little society thought of them. It must have been alarming for men as well – whether sensible or foolish, they had to rethink what they knew of society as they encountered women who challenged the long-standing patriarchal belief that the other sex is weaker and therefore less worthy.

Had it not been for at least some men seeing women in a new light, marriage would have remained an alliance between families and a smokescreen for assets changing hands. Fortunately, it shape-shifted. In those years, when our grandparents and great-grandparents were falling in love, marriage was redefined. Behaviour that had been condoned and even dismissed – like infidelity, abandonment and abuse – was first frowned upon, then criticised and finally criminalised. None of this would have happened had people not fallen in love with the ones they married.

This marriage, powered by romance, is a delicate, young thing. It’s also rare. Marriages in which people stay together even though they’ve never felt love for one another – that’s 14% of all married couples in India – or the 67.8% that wishes they were with someone else are an archaic and arguably more common version of the institution. Of course the young want no part of this institution. Especially if you are in a loving relationship, why would you want it to devolve into this unhappiness?

But imagine a marriage in which the two of you can be yourselves. Imagine a life with someone who takes pleasure in looking at you, no matter what you wear or weigh. Imagine living with the one who can brighten the darkest of moods in another person’s life simply by being there. Imagine having someone who won’t give up on either you or the argument the two of you are having; the one that ends in either giggles or make-up sex (or both). That’s the kind of marriage that we have conjured into being over the past few generations. That’s the kind of marriage that’s worth having.

Can you find all this in a relationship without getting married? Of course you can. Will it hurt less if your unmarried heart is broken? No. There’s something teetering between pragmatism and extreme caution that lurks around that statistic of young people not wanting to get married, even though they’re in committed relationships. It’s disconcerting. Because what kind of a youth won’t throw caution to the wind and take a chance, especially in matters of love? What sort of a society have we created where men and women in their early 20s aren’t prone to romantic flights of fancy? Why is this gen-next so afraid of being hurt? Or is it simply disinterested?

Of today’s young adults, a considerable number have sex freely, think porn is sex education and go to the hook-up site Tinder in search of jobs. If that’s the lot that isn’t getting married for love, thank god. If they did, it might really be the end of marriage as some of us imagine it. Here’s to the 75% that (one hopes) is less jaded.

Books of 2016: January

This list of books read in January doesn’t include my pulpy romances simply because I can’t remember how many of them I’ve read. It’s definitely above eight in number. I abandoned at least two of them because they were just too cringe-inducing. I don’t know if it’s the romances coming my way — yes, let’s just pretend they waft into my Kindle, without any sort of agency on my part — or a general trend, but more and more heroines appear to be either virginal or verging on virginal. These ladies are so damned wide-eyed at the heroes and so in awe of the heroes’ sexual prowess that I would like to poke them in their eyes with vibrators.

But that’s not the point. Here’s what I’ve read in January.

The Zhivago Affair

The Fact of a Doorframe

The Monogram Murders

One Point Two Billion

A Handbook for My Lover

Slade House

The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own

There are two possible reasons for me not writing about a title: laziness or attempted diplomacy. Chances are high of the former being more compelling than the latter. Both A Handbook for My Lover and The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma are quick reads. Spinster took longer. I’d started reading it last month and it got abandoned mid-way. I suspect if I hadn’t found it in my bag while killing time at an airport, I wouldn’t have bothered to finish it. Slade House isn’t bad, but not quite as brilliant as Mitchell’s books have been of late. 

 

 

 

Photos: National Geographic Traveller

So here’s a little woohoo moment: I made my debut as a photographer on National Geographic Traveller India’s website at the end of 2015. With four girlfriends, I went on an amazing trip across Madhya Pradesh. One of my friends and fellow travellers was Saumya Ancheri of NGT, who wrote this account. Saumya joined us after we’d tramped through Mandu, which is why there are no photos of Mandu here but I absolutely loved that little town. And I have some lovely photos of its gorgeous buildings, but that’s for another day. Read Saumya’s article and here are a few more photographs from that part of our Ladies’ Special trip to Madhya Pradesh.

Farewell 2015, part II

So I’m going to be reviewing films from time to time for Scoopwhoop. Here are the first three, which were the last three Bollywood releases of 2015.

Tamasha:

“You may suspect there’s something slightly wonky upstairs when you see Ved in Corsica. Why is he having conversations with mountains instead of the human being in the car with him? Why is he mimicking Dev Anand and unleashing the worst pick-up lines ever? Why are random Corsicans singing and dancing with him? Why is this erratic behaviour charming to Tara?

However, it’s when Ved hurtles towards self-discovery that his insanity becomes unmistakable. He repeatedly talks to his own mirror image. He flies into fits of rage with Tara (because how better to show your love for a woman than by yelling at her?). He also goes to a storyteller (Piyush Mishra) and asks the old man to tell him how Ved’s story will end, as though the storyteller is an astrologer.”

Dilwale:

Dilwale is very literally a bromance and this is a critical problem because Dhawan and Khan make for an unbearable couple. Watching Dhawan attempting to copy Khan’s acting style is painful and you’d never believe this is the same actor from Badlapur. Not only does Dhawan sorely lack Khan’s distinctive charisma, there’s so much hamming in Dhawan’s performance that he may as well have added an “oink” at the end of each dialogue. Next to him, even Johnny Lever’s over-the-top antics seem normal.”

Bajirao Mastani:

“It’s easy to see why this story has delighted so many writers in Maharashtra. Bajirao and Mastani’s relationship was and remains as scandalous as it is progressive. The liberalism of Bajirao, Mastani and Kashi makes this historical account startlingly modern. Today, when accusations of love jihad and communal tensions surround us, this unflinching love story between a devout Hindu warrior and a non-Hindu princess (although her son was raised a Muslim, Mastani probably belonged to the Pranami sect that didn’t recognise caste or religious divides) is one that bears repeating.

Bhansali is not known for subtlety, but the way he criticises religious orthodoxy without speechifying is among Bajirao Mastani’ s finer qualities. The director is unabashedly against anti-Muslim paranoia and he cleverly weaves his liberal beliefs into the dynamics of the love triangle and political drama.”

 

Flashback: Aisi Taisi Democracy, Tape, Krishna Shroff and the Internet

This was first published on Firstpost.

What will it be this week, Indian internet? Should we succumb to delirium because porn star Mia Khalifa is tipped to be a contestant in Bigg Boss 9? Or shall we ogle at Krishna Shroff’s “topless” photos while wagging a finger at her for sexually objectifying herself? Or perhaps we can direct our attention to another pretty, not-so-young thing, Aatish Taseer, who has made tongues wag by declaring himself a better writer than Saadat Hasan Manto?

French philosopher Joseph de Maistre had said, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” With the internet, the relationship is even more direct. We fashion the internet with every little and big thing we put online — every photo, every status update, every article, every video, every post. This is what makes the Internet so versatile, so delicious and so tasteless all at the same time. It’s being moulded and remoulded every day, according to the tastes and fancies of those who make use of it.

This is liberating only as an idea. In practice, the Indian internet is an alarming creation that just isn’t quite as protean as one would hope. The bulk of Indian online content reeks of insecurity, ignorance, aggression and hormones. When it comes to pornography, we’re on top of the pile. Our piracy stripes are pretty decent too. Social media, where an argument need not be either considered or fleshed out, is our preferred swamp. We have some of the finest trolls the Internet has known. If there’s a trend or a situation that requires a kneejerk reaction, we’re all over it in a jiffy.

But where are the smarts? Where are the intelligent conversations? Who has their eye on culture, instead of gossip, ‘trending’ topics and forgettable, broken news? No one. Listicle over analysis; hashtag over perspective (even though neither of these are mutually exclusive, if you think about it).

The point isn’t that we should all aspire to an elevated intellect (though would that really be a bad thing?), but that in India, we’re so intently focused upon junk that we’re in danger of being reduced to Pavlovian responses. Pop culture has its champions (as it should) but celebrating it to the exception of everything else isn’t an encouraging symptom for the Indian internet.

Last week, Mumbai saw two extraordinary live shows, both of which were sold out despite limited publicity. One is Aisi Taisi Democracy, a show of stand-up comedy and music by Varun Grover, Sanjay Rajoura and Rahul Ram. In it, Grover and Rajoura serve up a hilarious and biting critique of modern India. They spare no one. From human resource teams to politicians and parents, everyone gets a tongue lashing. And in Grover’s case, the tongue-lashing comes in a melodious, sophisticated Hindi that delivers abuse with cadence.

While the songs in Aisi Taisi Democracy were strictly forgettable, Grover and Rajoura were incandescent. With smiles that resembled flickering halos, the stand-up comics mused upon why a man would have his name stitched on his clothes, if it’s possible for a lion to leave just one paw print, “Bharatiya sanskriti”, the magazine Grihashobha and old-fashioned juicers. The realities that Grover and Rajoura were talking about are dark and depressing, but the two comics lit up the gloom with their sense of humour. And so for two hours, everyone laughed and laughed, and laughed some more.

Did Aisi Taisi Democracy break the internet? There was nary a crack.

Over the weekend, a show called Tape was held in a bar in Mumbai. Performed by Patchworks Ensemble and presented by Gaysi Family, Tape is about “drag kings”. Women dressed up as men and presented a masculinity that was as much a performance as it was authentically felt. Drag is the act of wearing the clothes and make-up of a different gender from one’s own. It has a long tradition in Indian culture and is traditionally done by men, who adopt feminine persona (particularly in classical dance and traditional theatre). In Tape, drag was seen in a modern context and through the experiences of women and their bodies.

Tape was funny, cleverly choreographed and fabulously performed. Everyone had their moment in the spotlight. Puja Swarup was extraordinary as a wannabe-Shammi Kapoor. From expression to gestures, she seemed like a human Xerox of the yesteryear star. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee belted out a song about her “ding-a-ling” that no one knew but everyone joined in. Mukti Mohan played Harpal, a tiny Sardar with explosive energy and extraordinary dance moves.Tape was scandalous and looked spectacular, despite being enacted in the modest corner of a bar.

But Tape birthed barely a murmur in the world of the Internet.

At both Tape and Aisi Taisi Democracy, the audience was discouraged from recording the event. Tape didn’t even want photographs to be taken during the performance, ostensibly because it would be distracting for the performers. (This is plausible since there really wasn’t much of a gap between the first row of audience members and the ‘stage’.) One can’t help but feel that under this excuse lurks a fear of what will happen if trolls and others of that ilk get to know about these events. Recently, at a screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, one member of the audience said, “It’s tough to know how much to publicise this stuff. You don’t want the wrong people to find out.”

In Aisi Taisi Democracy, there were repeated jokes about the comics courting arrest with this show. At one point, Grover mischievously advised the audience to laugh with discretion — a reference no doubt to the charges lodged against members of the audience in AIB Knockout.

Yet for all the good humour, there was a sense of leaden certainty that the threat of getting arrested isn’t a joke for anyone who questions convention and the establishment. If the ‘wrong’ people come to Aisi Taisi Democracy or Tape, then these shows could be shut down and those responsible for them could be (at the very least) harassed. These are cultural works that should encourage conversation; make us think about different topics ranging from body image and feminism to democracy.

Yet, if the data is to be believed, we’d much rather yammer on about Shroff’s bare skin and Taseer’s delusions.

There’s something painfully tragic about the fact that the Internet, which could be and often is used for so much good, is also responsible for cultural debate that has about as much nuance as haggling in a fish market. Today, the Internet helped to bring to light what Khabar Lahariya‘s journalists are suffering in the hands of a phone stalker and the Uttar Pradesh police. That’s a win in terms of awareness, but it isn’t a conversation starter. If anything, it shuts too many of us up because it confirms our darkest suspicions about what it means to be a woman in patriarchal India.

Reality has a way of doing that, of making everyone go quiet. Art and culture, on the other hand, keep us loud and on our toes. They’re both close and distant enough to evoke just the right intensity of emotion to rev you up, but not paralyse you. At its best, art makes us question and dream. It angers, inspires and offers us spectacles as opposed to blinkers, provided we can discuss what we see before us. Provided there is something to see. Provided there’s a place where you can hear and be heard.

So what is it that you’d like the internet to be today? A simple placard of protest? A jenga tower of political ambitions? A weapon? A haven? It can be any of these; it could be all of these. We, the ones with the Internet, decide. So click with caution, and create with abandon.