Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor and Diljit Dosanjh in Udta Punjab | BalajiMotionPictures/YouTube
8pm: I was getting my air conditioner fixed when a friend hastily called me to come watch Udta Punjab at a cinema near my home in less than an hour. He said, "The show is at 8:45pm so get ready. I will be coming to pick you up in few minutes." Reluctantly, I accepted the offer as he didn't give me an option to refuse.
I was aware of the 100-plus cuts that the censor board of Pakistan had suggested to the distributors to make Udta Punjab eligible for release here. Earlier in the day, I also read director Abhishek Chaubey's interview with the Times of India in which he clearly stated, "It definitely means loss of revenue if the film is not released in Pakistan. But more than that... it would make no sense to release it with the said cuts. The film is intended to convey something and make a point."
8:15pm: I called my helper and asked him to monitor the work in progress at my home.
8:45pm: Finally, the show began.
11:10pm: The show ended.
After having a cup of coffee in a café nearby, I rushed to my home immediately.
1am: I opened my laptop and started putting my thoughts down in black and white. Is it really an important film? For now, I don't know because I've just started writing. But I firmly believe that this piece should reach out to the people in India who have fought a legal battle against the censor board. Additionally, this is also an instructional guide for the people in Pakistan who are going to watch this film over this week.
Let me just say, the cuts didn't make any difference to the overall impact of the film.
How does it feel to watch a highly touted film with more than a 100 cuts? Does the impact of a critically acclaimed social drama stay intact? Let me just say, the cuts didn't make any difference to the overall impact of the film.
Brimming with unfettered energy, Udta Punjab may seem like a tasteful dramatic socio-political commentary on the current situation of drugs in Punjab but it's much more than that. Writers Abhishek Chaubey and Sudip Sharma handpick four characters and delve into their lives with glorious élan. They introduce an unnamed girl (Alia Bhatt) in the first act followed by a coke-addled Punjabi pop star Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor), a no-nonsense cop Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) and an optimistic doctor Preet Sahani (Kareena Kapoor). From here on, the film brings them together intermittently with their lives connected through a single menace.
As the movie advances into the second act, it becomes clear that it's not just a commentary on the current situation of substance abuse in Punjab but a case study on the lives of its four leading protagonists. Chaubey and Sharma are not interested in cramming their film with coincidences, contrivances and easy solutions to explore human responses to real life situations. However, they focus on establishing a tone by using the prowess of the scrupulously chosen protagonists to reach a hard-hitting finale.
Udta Punjab may seem like a tasteful dramatic socio-political commentary on the current situation of drugs in Punjab but it's much more than that.
The finale just doesn't creep in with a wide smile on its face. However, it arrives after a string of breathtaking and terrifying turns involving the lead characters. As the film reaches its last frame, it announces a director with a vision and passion: Abhishek Chaubey. It's significant to remember his name for it is his third triumphant directorial venture after Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya. Chaubey deserves a comparison with the Dardenne brothers who are famous for shooting their films with an acute humanist approach. Chaubey also works meticulously to establish the base of his characters with a technique that is humanist in nature. His struggle is elevated by cinematographer Rajeev Ravi who uses the land of five-rivers with the attention it truly deserves. This sound visual approach helps Chaubey to familiarize his protagonists with the audiences.
From beginning to end, Udta Punjab is filled with joy and jagged pain, blossoming love and simmering hatred, feelings stripped naked and buoyed up victoriously. With all these opposites running in the narrative, Udta Punjab feels a lot like real life, which is moving, unpredictable and forever finding the best-laid plans for us. This only happens because Chaubey and Sharma gracefully allow the story to flow in its free style, sometimes rambling and only giving the actors enough elbow room to reinvent and rediscover themselves. Credit must also be given to the creative editing by Megha Sen that makes the flow of the movie seamless.
Shahid Kapoor in a still from Udta Punjab | BalajiMotionPictures/YouTube
The actors expressively inhabit the mood of their characters with finesse, depicting a looming sense of peril. Alia Bhatt, the unnamed girl, hits back with a sensitive performance after Highway. It's Alia Bhatt's astonishing act that is the film's finest accomplishment. Her role of a Bihari migrant is a portrait of repressed anger, fragmented emotions and spoiled innocence. With a combination of powerful and raw emotions, Alia Bhatt elevates Udta Punjab above its height and delivers one of the most haunting performances of the year.
Udta Punjab feels a lot like real life, which is moving, unpredictable and forever finding the best-laid plans for us.
On the other hand, Shahid Kapoor injects an infectious energy in the film as the Punjabi pop star. He is an instinctive actor who doesn't know how to hit a false note. Kapoor finds startling possibilities of his character, a challenging role that requires him to show his struggle against drug abuse that's both gradual and inherently internal. Suhail Nayyar, playing his right shoulder, effortlessly takes command of every scene he plays.
Diljit Dosanjh (Sartaj Singh) breathes life into the narrative along with Kareena Kapoor Khan (Preet Sahani). They both go side by side throughout the film to give the film its moments of hope. We root for Preet and Sartaj. How could we not? However, Chaubey never bothers to tell us if their efforts deserve to succeed till the last scene.
Shahid, Diljit, Kareena and especially Alia take the film to glorious heights, as does their director Abhishek Chaubey. He films the simultaneously unfolding stories of the movie meticulously. Udta Punjab is at its best in scenes featuring Alia Bhatt's character. It's a darkly nuanced role for her after a more light-hearted and comedic performance in Kapoor and Sons.
Udta Punjab is acted, directed and written with enormous style. Chaubey has made a film that challenges you to keep up with its pace, then leaves you breathless. It requires you to be tough, but your resilience will be amply rewarded.
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