Note: spoilers ahead
Udta Punjab is a wonderful film. No, it really is. Rarely does a film manage to effectively tie four unique characters to its central plot. Certain scenes such as Tommy peeing on his own fans, when he's faced with the Frankenstein's monster his lyrics have created, are poetically beautiful. The music and the background score are astoundingly fresh and top-notch.
But Udta seems like the perfect example of a theme whose full potential wasn't tapped. A film that could have been so much more than a successful Bollywood product. A film that could have stood out as one of the best films, period.
And this isn't just about Udta Punjab.
There's a peculiarity about the movies we make. Most of them are extremely observer-oriented. Even in moments where the movie gets us completely engrossed, we remain spectators. We stay at a vantage point observing the events of the films. We understand the characters but do not experience their lives.
There's a peculiarity about the movies we make. Most of them are extremely observer-oriented... we remain spectators.
Trainspotting excels at this. We dive right into the world of Mark Renton and experience things from his mindset. The opening sequence itself establishes his reasons for using heroin in spite of being aware of its repercussions. We live with his group of friends, be a part of him while he overdoses, his withdrawal hallucinations, all of it. We are transported right into his mind space and understand him, rather than judge him.
As a film, this keeps us engaged and completely oblivious of the world around us. The film becomes our world.
Udta Punjab, however, takes an event-based approach. It is quite like a long-read article we might come across in the Sunday edition of any newspaper. It makes us feel as if we are watching certain incidents unfold before us. But that's what they remain limited to. Incidents.
The effects of drug use are highly personal and change the human psyche in unimaginable ways. Udta shows us a glimpse of those effects with Tommy and Sartaj's brother but does not develop on it. The drug situation is expanded upon by showing its entanglement with police corruption and politics. It further tells us how the ingredients to manufacture the drugs are obtained by working around the safeguards.
Udta Punjab... is quite like a long-read article we might come across in the Sunday edition of any newspaper.
It provides a lot of information about the situation. Yes, the film is more about the situation, since it is "Udta Punjab" and not "Udta Tommy". But, especially, in a film like this, which could have shown the immense trouble and frustration of a drug addict and his family, we end up nodding agreeably at the facts we are already aware of. Drugs are wrong, drugs impact the family of the addict, the drug trade exists because it is prevalent within the echelons of government, etc. It feels like an overbearing necessity to have a serious vibe and send a message across for a film like this.
And when it comes to understanding the effects of the drug, the film hesitates from going further than the obvious. At times, it oversimplifies to a level that robs the real depravity of drug addiction. Tommy goes from hardcore druggie to "all-clean-and-not-gonna-do-this-anymore" with just a couple of incidents. Mary Jane undergoes tremendous and disturbing amounts of torture and humiliation, involving repeated dosages of drugs. And yet she can stop almost as easily as they began. As for the other characters, Sartaj does have a predictable-yet-decent character arc that, yet again, transforms him from a corrupt officer to "that's-it-I-am-a-decent-cop-now" human rather conveniently. Preet stays unidimensional and angelic throughout, with rarely any depth to her.
Why do our characters stay good throughout the entire film? Would we not empathize with them if they were inherently dysfunctional, flawed, weak and wrong?
Why do our characters stay good throughout the entire film? Would we not empathize with them if they were inherently dysfunctional, flawed, weak and wrong? Are we, as an audience, addicted to films and characters that are heroes in their own right and not vulnerable, confused and hypocritical, just like us?
Our films seem to be struggling with an addiction, too. Happy endings and closures. Udta Punjab nearly had the perfect ending, wherein Punjab's next generation weeps, witnessing the consequences of its own actions. This is shown brilliantly as Sartaj looks at his younger brother who cries. But, it was needlessly extended to show the happiness of Tommy, the christening of Mary Jane and her liberation.
This yearning to leave no room for doubt and happy endings seems to hold back the brilliance of our films.
Contrast that with Trainspotting. It opens with Renton deciding to quit heroin once and for all, followed by his hilarious yet saddening attempt at failing to doing so. That pretty much wins us over and also makes it evident why letting go of a drug addiction is so difficult.
Our films seem to be struggling with an addiction, too. Happy endings and closures.
The one thing that Trainspotting does, which Udta Punjab and nearly most of our Bollywood movies do not, is leave us in a state of deep thought at the end of the film. A state of ambiguity, with a dose of satire or absolute ennui. When Renton delivers the "choose life" monologue at the beginning and the end of Trainspotting, we realize how run-of-the-mill the entire normalcy of life sounds, especially after we've seen a roller-coaster of events when Renton used drugs. Would we really choose the normalcy of life after we've ourselves felt and experienced the absolute high and satisfying disconnect that heroin provides? Would we be able to keep ourselves sane in the dreary routine of everyday life after knowing how we can quickly escape it by a single push of syringe right into our vein?
These aspects dive right into the midst of "why do people relapse into drugs yet again?" The monologue, combined with the sequence of the baby's death, the rationalization of "one hit, just one last hit". These are the incidents that define the crux of drug usage. Addiction.
As a film about one of the most controversial topics, Udta Punjab explores the situation but doesn't delve deeper into the addict's point of view. It explores more of the Punjab and less of why is it "Udta", and what makes the "kanjar aulaad" resort to doing drugs.
The one thing that Trainspotting does, which Udta Punjab and nearly most of our movies do not, is leave us in a state of deep thought...
Maybe if a film was made on those lines, it would face even more trouble getting through the CBFC, which already raised its hackles over the film we currently have. Or maybe, as an audience, we are yet to be comfortable with a film that explores the theme of drugs in a deeper realm, and feel the necessity of a message-driven film to primarily help us open our eyes.
The question then comes down to a simple choice. Udta Punjab could have been our Trainspotting. But then again, should it have been?
PS: Follow this up with by reading an excellent interview of Abhishek Chaubey that sheds light on his thought process for the film and satisfies many of our queries.
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