19 June 2016

The Straight Dope

Udta Punjab may not always fly as high as it wants to, but its portrait of the drug-fuelled state steps fearlessly off the edge. 

There's a moment in Udta Punjab when one of the film's primary characters, an otherwise easygoing young cop, suddenly decides he can no longer be a willing cog-in-the-wheel of the terrible drug chariot rolling through the state, crushing people in plain sight. 

Before his companions guarding the naka know what's hit them, Sartaj has cracked open the headlights of a truck carrying the latest illegal consignment and bashed up its driver instead of letting him through. When his boss manages to get him back under control, he takes Sartaj aside and says to him, deadpan: "You beat up the man, I can deal with that. But why damage the truck?" 

That line of dialogue is a pithy pointer to the tragic state of Punjab today, where the gainers guard a corrupt system — like that truck — at the cost of a vast population. Cheap drugs have made inroads into the smallest hamlets, eating through the innards of a once-prosperous state. From the political big man to the small-time operator, the gainers worship at the altar of money, closing their eyes to the human wreckage piling up behind the throne. 

Sudip Sharma, who wrote the superb and harrowing NH10, joins forces with director Abhishek Chaubey to write this ambitious but not completely successful script. Unlike NH10, which channels our fear of the other, creating a chillingly believable war in which the battlelines are drawn by patriarchy, Udta Punjab asks us to suspend our disbelief as its disparate characters unite across barriers of class, language and experience, against drugs. 

The quietly winsome Punjabi star Diljit Dosanjh plays Sartaj Singh, a policeman who has no problems being on the take until he's shocked and then taunted into a change of heart by a personal situation — and by Kareena Kapoor's saintly but sharp-tongued activist-doctor Preet. Alia Bhatt plays an unnamed Bihari migrant labourer whose attempt to use drug money to engineer her way out of her circumstances goes terribly awry. And finally, but most importantly, we have Shahid Kapoor as the seriously unstable Tommy Singh, a rockstar whose highs and lows as a performer are no longer extricable from his highs and lows as a coke addict. 

There is nothing wrong with the characters per se. In fact, Sharma and Chaubey make a wise choice by deciding to keep the focus on each character's personal battle with drugs—the only one who seems to be acting purely out of the goodness of her heart, Kareena's Dr Preet, is the least fleshed-out (though Kareena isn't terrible, and she even has some sweet scenes with the effortlessly effective Dosanjh). 

But I found it hard to believe in the ease of the romantic alliance between the highly qualified Preet and the largely uneducated Sartaj—perhaps if we'd had more time with these people, it would have seemed less convenient, less pat? Bhatt dives enthusiastically into her harrowing role, but despite her valiant efforts at Bhojpuri, neither her body language nor her accent allowed me to believe she was anything but Alia Bhatt in brownface. As for her character's hockey-playing past, I wish it had had more play—it's certainly easier to imagine Bhatt as an aspiring rural sports star than as a landless labourer used to working in the fields. Who knows, I may even have believed in a rockstar falling for her. 

Shahid Kapoor gets the best written role, but he also puts body and soul into it. His Tommy Singh is the film's crazed, throbbing heart: careening wildly through both his concerts and his life, and dragging us willingly with him. It is Tommy — and the darkness of his life in the spotlight — that gives Udta Punjab that edge of madness, of devil-may-care-ness, that is so threatening to the powers-that-be. And certainly there is an unapologetic use of gaalis and cusswords -- not the only thing about the film that seems Tarantinoesque. 

But other than the lyrics of a song like Chitta Ve —dedicated to the 'White One'—you'd be hard put to find something in Udta Punjab that could be construed as "glorifying" drug use. But while Chaubey is obviously gifted in his ability to make narrative use of songs (think of Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji in his marvellous first film Ishqiya), songs in our cinema do sometimes have a tendency to become breakaway units, declaring their independence from the film that houses them. 

On the whole, Chaubey's film makes it absolutely clear which side of the fence it's on, showing us a whole gamut of utterly depressing examples of people and families gutted by addiction: in homes, in jails, in hospitals and de-addiction centres, and most scarily, in the thousands of empty sheds and barns and brick shelters across the state in which young men and boys lie about, shooting up all day. 

It is the smaller characters that make Sharma and Chaubey's script really speak—from Sartaj's sharp-eyed boss Jujhaar Singh, who counts himself amongst the gainers, to the creepy rapist (Vansh Bhardwaj) who takes selfies with his drugged victim before injecting himself with another dose of something. 

Udta Punjab isn't a perfect film, perhaps not even a great one. But it has an unstoppable energy, and a fierce honesty of purpose that almost always manages to stop short of preachiness. That's worth a great deal.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 19th June, 2016.

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