There’s an old joke about how two smack-heads score their fix in an unfamiliar new city. They stand on opposite sides of the road, and one tosses an imaginary length of rope while the other grabs and fastens it. The first person to duck under the rope as he walks by is the man to ask. Going by Udta Punjab, the entire land-of-five-rivers is full of people tripping over non-existent lines. (As well as, of course, lines that are all too real.)
Despite the three disclaimers forced onto this movie, the backdrop really isn’t fiction. The shockingly dismal drug problems in Punjab are well-documented, but it is only with Abhishek Chaubey’s new film that we are confronted with the state’s sickly addiction issues in mainstream fashion, and it doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. This is a stirring film, one that is concerned (and besotted) with Punjab and one with a solid anti-drug message, a message delivered so single-mindedly that it even gets in the way of the storytelling. The film’s four protagonists, however, are impossible to impede.
Meet Tommy Singh. He has the words ‘Momma Da Boy’ tattooed under his clavicle, and a sticker saying ‘my guitar’ on, well, his guitar: he’s a labelled-rebel, a work of successful branding in a land where pop-music is not merely alive but routinely mainlined by famished audiences, and clueless kids look to him as a messiah. In the real world there exists a Punjabi pop genre devoted to triumphant songs celebrating getting drunk and fighting, and this celebration of rolled-up sleeves makes for a land where Tommy, an utter wannabe, struts around like the cock of the walk.
He’s a nut with winged boots and a sycophantic entourage, but closing time looms ahead. Investors aren’t impressed by his innuendo, and politicians eager to take action about the drug situation are only too glad to point at such a moronically shiny target — even as Tommy hops from foot to foot like a sniffling prizefighter before Hulk-Hogan-ing it on stage, raising a hand to his ears in order to get cheering fans to cheer even louder.
The man who arrests Tommy, and finds much catharsis in walloping him, is Sartaj Singh, a mere one-star policeman who almost lost his Tommy-loving kid brother to cheap drugs available freely and lethally at local pharmacies. Sartaj is a quiet cop, one mostly content to let things roll on with the drug mafia as per arrangement, but a nearly-dead brother changes things.
He’s on a mission now, and pointing him in the right direction is Preet Sahni, a sharp and bold doctor who calls it like she sees it. And, given that she rehabilitates addicts, she sees the worst: junkies unable to distinguish right from wrong, families living in denial about the zombies in their midst, corruption and easy access to drugs spread all across the state. She wants something to be done about it, and she’s willing to take things into her own hands. Somebody has to.
Meanwhile, there’s a hockey-playing migrant labourer from Bihar, a petite girl who finds a gigantic packet of heroin and thinks it could be key to a new life. It does lead her places, but nothing in this girl’s life works out as expected. But go see her instead of reading about her.
Chaubey’s film starts off slick but choppy, the narrative hopping across these compelling characters in a wild, whimsical manner reminiscent of early Guy Ritchie. Unfortunately, the irreverence and narrative bravado is often sidelined by heavy-handed Public Service Announcement style handling. The film is trying to open our eyes to the drug menace, but the first half of the film seems confused about where it is pitched — dark comedy or preachy drama — and, as a result, feels a bit long in the tooth. It doesn’t help that the editing appears too abrupt: we cut from scene to scene (from a packet of brown sugar tossed in the air to a cleaver coming down to chop meat for a quirkily named dog) too rapidly, almost as if the filmmakers self-consciously want to rush through these uneven bits.
It is in the second half, after the preachiness has made way for plot, that Chaubey’s finesse comes to the fore and the film gleams with originality. The leaps forward are unexpected, the narrative choices brave, and the detailing exquisite. We hear about a good-for-nothing Tommy having gone to the UK to study, and near the start of the film there appears a giant sign proudly advertising ‘Without IELTS,’ promising the chance to study in Britain without clearing the basic English language hurdles. Preet has a GMAT book by her desk, showing that even the crusading doctor wanted escape. There is a brilliant moment as Sartaj embraces the anonymity offered by a pagri, and there’s something magical about the way he keeps saying ‘sissdi’ because for him the word café means a branch of Cafe Coffee Day.
Shahid Kapoor is spectacular as Tommy, a coke-addled fool who wins us over with slack-jawed grace and makes the songs credibly appear his own. His shots are glamorously composed, with him the focal center of most frames, but even without this help, he’d readily command the screen. The way his voice gets squawkily high when he’s desperate, the way he says mojo with a few ‘j’s too many, the way he throws a microphone stand and makes that action look impulsive, effete and effective all at once… Wow. This is the actor at his best, and he must be lauded for embracing the lunacy so wholeheartedly.
While Kapoor’s is the showy part, Diljeet Dosanjh absolutely shines as he grounds the film with the more straight, more simmering role. Playing Sartaj, there is a touch of young Sunny Deol to his angry intensity but, man, the no-nonsense realism he brings to the part is striking. I want to watch a half-dozen films he’s acted in before, the man is clearly a star.
Kareena Kapoor is well cast as Preet but not quite given as much to do, save for looking so perfect she eats up the words in the mouths of those around her. Alia Bhatt, as the hockey-girl, commits to her accent and deals with the film’s most unsavoury section, and is stunning during an incendiary speech that elevates the entire film to a whole other level. This is an impressive role for a starlet like Bhatt to choose, and to her I doff my hat. As I do to many across this fine ensemble cast, like Manav Vij, who plays the formidably bearded senior cop, Satish Kaushik and Suhail Nayyar.
Contrary to what you might expect, this isn’t a greatly political film, focussing instead on the problem, the characters and their internal conflicts. And it makes room for a few references. Chaubey borrows the sublime toilet sequence from Trainspotting, includes a stray Pulp Fiction nod with the way a line is said, and steals a villain reluctant to kill his relatives from his own Ishqiya films — and, in what must be an in-joke, names of Bollywood writers and directors (and buddies of Chaubey and writer Sudip Sharma) like Akshat Verma and Navdeep Singh show up on a list of suspects. But Udta Punjab truly soars when being its own madcap beast, profane and powerful and preening.
Oh, and a word about that music: Woof. Amit Trivedi is a master, Chaubey has a gift for placing music and adding context to moments, and the decision to use Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s dazzling poem Ikk Kudi as a literal part of the narrative is a marvellous one. Naturally, this call — like that of sculpting his idiocy across the side of his own head — is made by the mad musician. Good on you, Tommy. Rock a doodle doo.
Rating: 4 stars
First published Rediff, June 17, 2016