If you look at what comprises Udta Punjab – a rockstar, drugs, drug addicts, political nexus of drug peddling, a cop and a doctor on the mission to bust this nexus – it sounds like a high octane thriller. Sorry to report, it’s just half that. And it’s not bad. Because major part of the film still makes it one of the most sublime films you’ll see this year.
“Apart from the war that we are fighting against the system, the real war on drugs is within our home,” says Kareena Kapoor’s character Dr. Preet Sahani to Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh), an assistant police, whose own brother is a victim to the raging drug addiction in Punjab. Simply telling you the statistics of the drug rage will not horrify you as much when you see a teenage throwing up on a hospital bed with little hope of making it. The film too takes that tone. It’s more personal than political.
When Preet and Sartaj talk about how they would go about muckraking underground drug peddling nexus, they talk with unlikely amusement – impending of their inevitable romantic arc. The scene is treated romantically too. In another scene, when Sartaj is stabbed with a heroine syringe at the back of his neck, you expect the situation to become graver, but it turns into… a romantic one.
Also when Alia Bhatt’s nameless Bihari immigrant character on a run bumps into Shahid Kapoor’s newly rehabilitated Tommy Singh, who’s also on a run after peeing on his audience (the scene’s not entirely chopped, in case you’re wondering), they talk their emotions out. Though Bhatt aces this scene, it’s least likely for such characters to talk their emotions out this intelligently. But they are in despair, seemingly beyond repair. She has found someone in front of whom she could outburst her suppressed emotions; he has found someone who has no shame in confessing that she’s equally a loser. And in this emotionally tensed situation, she tersely kisses him. It’s unlikely, but you know the film wants to convince you with the point here more than the character.
The story, very novella-like, follows through these four characters with stakes of their own, yet each of them contributes for almost same screen time. It’s like an old-school ensemble drama. Even with mainstream elements infused, the narrative is refreshingly unique, Chaubey’s filmmaking, thoroughly consistent, undisturbed. The opening scene is paused after the title appears on a flying object and the film goes on to introduce us with the characters on a peppy rap, and we continue with the flying object post that. The end credit is similarly tweaked. We see a shootout, more than a chapter closed, and we are left with a shot of Balli crying (Sartaj’s heroin addicted brother). He is symbolic to the state of Punjab, who has been through the worst of drug addiction. This is the story that the film and its makers want to hit you with. But after hard drugs and heartbreaks, there is still hope. We are told that in the epilogue.
I wanted to see more of Bhatt’s story, even grimmer, to feel for her. But one character who deserves a film of his own is the regional pop-star Tommy Singh. The most explosive song of the film’s soundtrack (Andar Da Kuttaa) is not a part of the film or this pop-star. It is used in a way that we are already distanced from him. Modeled on Yo Yo Honey Singh (the catchphrase here is ‘Wah Wah Tommy Singh’), he makes crass songs too. He’s a narcissist buffoon, meant to be laughed at. High on cocaine, he feels inspired after seeing his own reflection even in loo water, unaware that this is where he’ll drown into (yes, we are looking at Danny Boyle’sTrainspotting) and this is what he’ll rise from (recall: he peed on public, chased to meet his real inspiration… a never found love – Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s Ikk Kudi Jida Naam Mohabbat comes alive here). He gets few more fine scenes but those should be fully realised into the film: The Fall and Rise of Tommy Singh.
Though the film touches upon the political aspect here superficially, it exposed the other system and its vindictive nature before its release for which it literally fought its way. You probably rooted for the film to win. Should you watch it for that reason alone? Happy to report, there’s more than just that.
This review was initially published at TheW14.com