Given the copious amount of digital newsbytes that have been spent on the endless series of controversies surrounding the release of ‘Udta Punjab’, it would have proved to be an anti-climax of gargantuan proportions had the movie turned out to be a dud. It would almost be like going to a much hyped comeback concert of a controversial rockstar, arrested for having drugs and later released, only to get to listen to a two minute speech on why drugs are so bad for us.
Thankfully, ‘Udta Punjab’ does not disappoint. It’s a powerful movie that manages to tackle head on an extremely important and topical subject and convey its intended message without either sounding preachy or sacrificing it’s artistic appeal. Although some may find the comparison a bit too much, but in many ways, Bollywood has finally found its own ‘Requiem for a Dream’ in ‘Udta Punjab’.
At its core, ‘Udta Punjab’ has a deeply poignant story of three characters who get caught up in the vicious cycle of drug menace, either willingly or through accident. Their lives are intertwined by the false choices they make and the resultant deep vortex they are sucked into. To begin with, their greed makes them complicit in the drug business, but by the time they realize their mistakes, they are too late. The retribution of fate is prolonged and brutal and changes their lives forever. Redemption is slow and painful and marked by recurrent slippages, deeper into the quagmire. Battles won are pyrrhic in nature, with deep scars and lasting agony.
The trail left by drugs, through the length of the movie, is bloody and devastating. It leaves behind ruined lives, broken homes and shattered relationships. In portraying the gut-wrenching impact drug abuse can have on the lives of the addicts, the movie is merciless and does not pull any punches. The movie shows, in stark and brutally realistic terms, the depths to which an addicted soul can stoop just to be able to get the next fix.
The Punjab as depicted in the movie is a far cry from the Punjab of Yashraj Films. Instead of the sepia-toned romanticism of prosperous joint families living in big farmhouses in the middle of yellow mustard fields and full of bumbling and genial sardars who are high on lassi and prone to breakout into a bhangra at the drop of a hat, the movie relentlessly depicts the ugly underbelly of a society torn apart by its addiction to the powder and syringes. It is a bleak, dystopian state of affairs where big politicians control the drug trade through a sophisticated supply chain stretching beyond the borders and involving local peddlers and policemen as the spokes in a complex, running wheel. It is a society where the youngsters, instead of studying at schools, consider crass and offensive rockstars as their idols and use their pocket monies for procuring their daily requirement of drugs. It is a place where the land is arid, music is vulgar, men are wasted, women are scarce, families are torn apart, society is parochial, law enforcement is corrupt and the government is non-existent. It is almost as if someone drove a bulldozer through the heart of the Punjab of ‘Veer Zara’ and left only the broken pieces behind.
‘Udta Punjab’ has a number of standout scenes, but the best of them is a prolonged interaction between the characters of Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, two shattered souls who while running away from addiction and the related paraphernalia, find each other in the middle of a deserted building in the middle of the night. It is a meeting of great symbolism, between a person whose best days are behind him and a person who has never seen good days. The scene also brings to light the immense acting prowess of two mainstream actors who take tremendous risks to feature in roles no conventional actor would have touched five years back. Shahid Kapoor, the man whose talent was not so long back thought to be limited to being a poor lady’s Shahrukh Khan in the romantic comedy genre, has suddenly discovered his acting chops, in a transformation reminiscent of the career of Matthew McConaughey. After his layered and bravura act in ‘Haider’, Shahid delivers another maniacal performance in ‘Udta Punjab’ in a role he performs with relish. But his performance fades in comparison to the histrionics of Alia Bhatt who delivers her act with pitch perfect precision and beautifully brings to life the resilience of a character who has been subjected to the ugliest and most heinous of brutalities in her short life but refuses to give up.
Watching the movie also reminds you how broken and dysfunctional our censor board is. There is nothing in the movie which defames any party of an individual. Yes, characters do speak in profanities, but that is a reflection of the colloquial tongue and is nothing out of the ordinary. The movie, if anything, is stringently anti-drug in its message and should dissuade all right thinking individuals from trying out the deadly stuff.
Yes, Punjab is not portrayed in a rosy light but that should bother the Censor Board only if it is doing the bidding of its political masters who risk losing the Assembly elections due there next year. It seems as if movies are cleared nowadays on the basis of which side of the ideological divide they are on. The hypocrisy of Censor Board is apparent from the way multiple scenes which showed a look alike of Indira Gandhi and her administration indulging in callous and self-serving behaviour in the movie ‘Manjhi – the Mountain Man’ managed to clear the board (rightly so), but any hint of inaction by the Punjab Government of the ruling dispensation is enough to draw ire from the Board. The Bombay High Court ruling which restrained the power of the Board to force any cuts in movies would have come as a welcome respite.
In the last few weeks, ‘Udta Punjab’ has managed to evoke full-fledged national debates on multiple questions of freedom of speech, power of the Censor Board, online piracy, drug abuse in Punjab and ineffectiveness of the Punjab Government, while at the same delivering an emotionally drenching movie filled with colourful characters, their broken dreams and their attempts at redemption. Given this, it would not be an exaggeration to dub this as one of the most impactful movies that have come out of Bollywood in the last few years.