Review: Udta Punjab — smoke it and get high!

Udta Punjab, Abhishek Chaubey’s directorial venture exposing the drug crisis and its victims in the once golden land of Punjab, is flying high in the box office and reaching out towards the magical figure of Rs 50 crore towards the end of its first week run.

The success of the Shahid Kapoor-Alia Bhatt starrer comes in the wake of a court allowing it to be shown in theatres following an excruciating legal battle with the moronic Censor Board in India over cuts and its success threatened by the release of a Censor Board pirate print on torrents just prior to its launch in theatres.

Although emerging from the general morass of Bollywood, new directors like Chaubey are bringing fresh, contemporary and often hidden stories to the screen along with a look and feel that is different. And it seems, there are enough takers for such films to succeed.

The 1970s led the charge of what was termed parallel or middle cinema, offering an alternative to mainstream Bollywood, Tollywood or Kollywood cinema to viewers, the bulk of whom are middle-class or lower class. Since then such films have consistently referred to sociopolitical issues and offered critical perspectives thanks to directors like Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, Girish Karnad, Ritwick Ghatak, and Rituparno Ghosh.

Udta Punjab is a sort of parallel or middle cinema today but it has come a long way from its predecessors. It flourishes contemporary cinematic tropes, culled from Bollywood, Hollywood and elsewhere, uses zippy editing techniques, a bevy of hot actors and actresses,and, finally, throws in the right bits of thrills, romance, comedy, action and gore.

In this sense, films like Udta Punjab extend the reach of Bollywood and yet challenge Bollywood and the hypocritical moralists in the Censor Board.

For those familiar with modern film-making, Udta Punjab begins with its Star Wars-like introduction. Then there is the scene of Shahid Kapoor, the fading cokehead and Punjabi pop star, staring into his reflection in the toilet bowl, a tribute to the film Trainspotting. The film seemingly comes to an end at one point and the credits appear. But suddenly it surprises with a visual postscript and a ‘happy ending’.

The realisation the film brings is that nobody, but nobody, in Punjab is left untouched or unaffected by the menace of drugs. The film adheres to the romantic picture one has of the Punjab and Punjabis, especially Sikhs. They live in the beautiful ‘land of five rivers’, they are hardworking, there are no beggars among the Sikhs, Punjab is the wheat bowl of India, Punjabi is a colourful language and the beats and music of Punjab are both hypnotic and global, etc.

But there is a serpent in Eden.

The film warns that Punjab is well on its way to becoming a drug cartel-ridden state like Mexico flush with corruption and drug money that flows all the way from the top to the bottom via the keepers of law and order.

But there is also an insinuation in the film, a dangerous subtext. It is that this state, unwittingly perhaps, has become ‘anti-national’ or, at least, is a threat to national security and the next generation. Its border with Pakistan has become ‘porous’ and Punjabis, notably Sikhs, have become partners with Pakistan in undermining the state and nation by being a conduit for drugs supplied by Pakistan.

It is not just Sikhs and Punjabis who are drawn into this subversive web of intoxication, decay and death but also Biharis and others from other north Indian states. Thus the tale of Alia Bhatt, who plays the nameless Bihari migrant, tempted to make money off drugs she finds accidentally and captured by the drug runners and turned into a sex slave.

In this Punjab, there is no space for honest cops like the one played by Diljit Dosanjh or those who want to see the land healed, like the doctor whom the cop loves, played by Kareena Kapoor. Even though the cop kills some of the baddies, he has to live with the truth that his teenage, drug-addicted, younger brother killed his lover, who was also seeking his son’s rehabilitation.

The film is, indirectly, a slap in the face of the Parkash Singh Badal-led Akali Dal government, with its alliance of convenience at present with the BJP-RSS nexus, that has ruled Punjab since 2007. The drug menace has grown to terrifying proportions since he came to power.

The film seems to conclude, apart from the last happy scene of the pop star and his rescued beau enjoying the beach and sea in Goa, the idyll that has replaced Punjab, that the only solution to the drug problem is to use the ubiquitous hockey stick or the gun and eradicate its purveyors.

Udta Punjab comes in the line of a series of films that Bollywood has made across decades on drug issues beginning with the blockbuster ‘hippie’ film Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) and moving on to Charas (1976), Jalwa (Pankaj Parashar’s 1987 hit), Dev D (Anurag Kashyap’s take on Devdas), Pankh (2010) and Go Goa Gone (2013).

There is also the offbeat Bengali film Gandu directed by Qaushiq Mukherjee, which is in another league altogether. Udta Punjab falls somewhere between the standard Bollywood fare and Gandu.