I saw Udta Punjab on my birthday which may not have been the best idea. Because it’s a very dark film. It’s taken me some time to process it and mull it over. I’m really impressed with the film making of writer/director Abhishek Chaubey. I enjoyed his film Ishquiya, and he was also a writer on Kaminey and Omkara. This film straddles the issue of drugs in the Punjab (the title means Punjab’s High or Punjab’s Flying) by telling the stories of four people affected by it.
Alia Bhatt is a field worker who comes across a packet of drugs from Pakistan. Shahid Kapoor is a coke addicted rapper rock star who sings about drugs. Kareena Kapoor is a saintly doctor who runs a drug clinic, hands out needles and speaks out against the drug problem. And then there’s Diljit Dosanjh who plays a cop, complicit in looking the other way and taking bribes until he realizes that his younger brother is an addict.
This reminded me immediately of the Hollywood film Traffic that told the story of how the Mexican drug cartels impact four people. I actually have not seen that Oscar winning film, but I did see the BBC series it was based on, Traffik which dealt with drugs from Pakistan in the UK, and it’s a British politician’s daughter who is the addict. The story of Traffic/Traffik and Udta Punjab are not the exact same plot, but the intention is the same — show the impact through four different characters involved in the drug crisis in different levels. And show how the problem is very political. That is overt in Udta Punjab, and that’s why the Indian Censor Board demanded 89 cuts.
Abhishek Chaubey fought back, with the backing of other filmmakers and took it to the High Court. In the end, the only cut and change was re-editing a scene where Shahid’s rock star urinates all over his audience at a concert. Which we saw in the trailer!! I’m so glad this film was released on time and that it is basically exactly what the filmmakers wanted to show us. There was such a rush that the subtitles on the copy I saw still had some copy errors – when characters sang the subtitles were supposed to be italicized, but we saw typed out <i>.
I don’t want to spoiler the movie. The performances were amazing. Kareena Kapoor was well cast as the cool, collected doctor. I wasn’t surprised that she was good. After the bomb of Shaandaar (which I did enjoy parts of), Alia and Shahid are back with a bang. Shahid in Udta Punjab is acting at the levels he reached in Kaminey and Haider. His character is a rock star. He’s larger than life at nearly every moment, but he’s not just a comic caricature – Shahid manages to find some nuance and depth in the quiet moments, like when he’s arrested for lewd behavior and is thrown into a cell filled with criminals.
Alia Bhatt just keeps getting better and better. I thought she was a lightweight when I first saw her in Student of the Year, and she is very good in romantic comedy roles. But when she’s in a drama like Highway, she can really pull out the stops with some amazing scenes. And there are even more show stoppers in Udta Punjab. Horrible things happen to her in this movie, and it is her indomitable spirit that carries us through. I was stunned at what happens to her and how she just perseveres to the end.
But Diljit Dosanjh’s humble policeman was the revelation of the film to me. Diljit is big star in Punjabi films, but I have not seen him before Udta Punjab. I have had Jatt and Juliet recommended to me, and I’m definitely going to seek it out now. He was adorable in his timid romance with Kareena Kapoor’s doctor. He wants to be the hero, and show her he can make a difference. He’s trying to save his drug addict younger brother, as their father has died and he is the head of the house. He has amazing quiet everyman screen presence and then can be explosive when an action scene calls for it.
This is a film that left me stunned, as it has realism like you rarely see in Hindi cinema. It gives you a lot to think about. And it lays bare just how big the drug problem apparently is in Punjab. Udta Punjab already garnered a lot of press and talk just because of the censor fight. I hope now that everyone can see for themselves the content of the film, that it will spur conversations about the issues raised in the film.
Four and a half out of five stars.
If you don’t mind spoilers, or if you’ve seen the film, I urge you to read Margaret Redlich’s excellent analysis on her blog Don’t Call It Bollywood. She delves much deeper into the film than I have here.