'Udta Punjab' Hits A High With Its Treatment Of The Punjab Drug Crisis

18/06/2016 12:00 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
Shailesh Andrade / Reuters
A man rides his bicycle past a poster of the movie "Udta Punjab" in Mumbai, India, June 13, 2016. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

A crime film based on the drug abuse problem in Punjab, Udta Punjab is co-written and directed by Abhishek Chaubey who has previously made films like Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya. Starring Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, and Diljit Dosanjh in the lead roles, the film was engulfed in a major controversy even before its release, with the Central Board of Film Certification directing the producers to make as many as 89 cuts. However, the Bombay High Court gave the permission for the film's national release with just one cut. Just as well.

Udta Punjab is an eye-opening account of how the ongoing drug crisis in Punjab is consuming the mind, body and soul of the state's youth. It's enough to make your blood boil and your eyes wet. The movie presents a kaleidoscopic account of how drugs enter the border state via Pakistan. How the ruthless drug lords operate under the aegis of the state machinery. How easily youngsters get sucked into the maw of darkness, choosing to live in drug-induced utopias rather than face reality. How hard it is for their families to rehabilitate them. How badly the addicts suffer, both physically and mentally, during the withdrawal phase.

The movie's biggest surprise package is Diljit Dosanjh who delivers an absolutely unforgettable performance.

Udta Punjab revolves around a rock star junkie named Tommy Singh (inspired by Yo Yo Honey Singh, played by Shahid Kapoor), a Punjab Police ASI named Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh), a doctor named Preet (Kareena Kapoor), and a female Bihari migrant named Pinky (Alia Bhatt), each of whom find themselves at the centre of the drugs crisis. Tommy Singh is a youth icon who through his revolting songs and rock-n-roll lifestyle has convinced his fans that doing drugs is cool. The youngsters copy his mannerisms, hailing him as their idol. But little do they know that Tommy is himself a victim of drug abuse. Tommy's days are numbered. While his clients have deserted him, the politicians and the police are desperate to make a scapegoat out of him. Sartaj, a corrupt policeman, becomes aware of the menace of drugs and joins Dr. Preet in her fight against substance abuse. As for Pinky, she gets victimized by a gang of drug peddlers. Thus, each of the four protagonists must find courage within themselves to fight the all-pervasive evil.

The acting is solid throughout, and credit should go to Chaubey for drawing worthy performances from the entire cast. Again, just like in Haider, Shahid gets to play a character on the brink of madness. And although he appears a bit over the top during a couple of sequences, he succeeds in pulling it off. Also, it's good to see Alia, who is usually typecast as a bubbly romantic interest, in a completely different avatar. Here she proves that she is certainly not averse to stepping out of her comfort zone. Kareena has really matured well as an actress. She delivers yet another solid performance here to follow her brilliant turn in R. Balki's Ki & Ka. But, the movie's biggest surprise package is Diljit Dosanjh who delivers an absolutely unforgettable performance. It looks like Dosanjh is here to stay. The principal cast is well backed by the supporting actors led by the veteran Satish Kaushik.

In spite of being an out and out commercial movie... it succeeds in tackling the controversial subject of cross-border drug trafficking with great conviction...

Overall, Udta Punjab is a historical film in many ways. In spite of being an out and out commercial movie, not only does it succeed in tackling the controversial subject of cross-border drug trafficking with great conviction, but it also serves as a potent case study in daring to question the relevance of adhering to obsolete censorship norms in modern India, perhaps ushering in a new era of filmmaking. The support that the movie has received from both inside and outside the industry is unprecedented and hopefully will go a long way in giving a new lease of life to Hindi cinema. The movie's cinematography and music give it a completely different dimension. The use of dream sequences to accentuate the psychedelic influence of drugs is nothing short of a masterstroke. One such sequence involving Alia is absolutely brilliant to watch. Making a movie entirely on drugs is quite new for Hindi cinema. It is a genre that the West excels at. Films like Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, and Steven Soderbergh's Traffic come to mind. Udta Punjab is certainly not in that class but its socio-political commentary, heavily laced with satire, is quite effective. Here is a film that needs to be watched.

Rating: A -

A version of this review was first published in A Potpourri of Vestiges.

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