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.

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