Udta Punjab – High but yet somewhat dry!
Remember how Tony Montana cursed and swore his way into our collective hearts back in the day. I distinctly recall how being an impressionable young teen, watching Scarface (1983) was a life altering experience. Al Pacino playing a cool-ass Cuban gangster had such a profane… ooops!.. profound effect on my susceptible neurons, that I even contemplated becoming a full-time goon (just don’t tell my dad).
Anyways, since the aforementioned idea was just a little far-fetched, I settled for the next cool thing by becoming a lean mean cuss machine! (Being a proud Punjabi certainly had a sway).
And ever since that fateful day, yours truly is notoriously known for being the pottiest mouth in the East.
Now being such a cussword aficionado, I have always found lack of profanities in mainstream Indian cinema a tad upsetting, not to mention highly unnatural too.
And then just like that, along came Gangs of Wasseypur with its expletive ridden script and I was over the proverbial moon. To me personally, there is just something orgasmic about celluloid swearing, if done in one’s native tongue.
And surely, much to my delight it was a gaali-galore and then some! But what it wasn’t, was an entirely effective cinematic piece on the menace of drugs.
Once you get past the shock value of hearing Punjabi swear words on screen repeatedly, you will realise Udta Punjab does not fly as high as its western predecessors.
There is an effectual way of telling tales about the horrors of substance abuse, an approach that movies like Trainspotting (1996), Traffic (2000) and Requiem for a Dream (2000) have so successfully made use of.
But having said that, Udta Punjab is still a creditable fare from an industry that is constantly maturing artistically.
Four parallel tracks, that of a nameless Bihari migrant farmhand (Alia Bhatt), a Punjabi rockstar Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor), a Sikh cop Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh) and a doctor moonlighting as journalist, Dr Preet (Kareena Kapoor Khan) play to the backdrop of a dystopic vision of a state that was once India’s bread basket. The quartet follow a three line narco-terror narrative where we are plunged into a frenetically vicious world of rock ‘n’ roll, coke (chitta powder) snorting and chemical cocktail injecting.
Udta Punjab takes flight without wasting a second… literally!
Somewhere on the Indo-Pak border, we see a heroin pouch being hurled by a discus thrower across a barbed fence. The package worth a huge sum accidentally lands in Jane Doe’s feet who proceeds to steal it when greed gets the better of her.
After failing at an attempt to make a fast buck by selling the cache, the peasant girl is captured by the local mafia who go on to make a druggie and sex slave out of her.
Meanwhile, Tommy Singh, an accidental rockstar known for his abuse-filled songs, and his drug-fuelled lifestyle is forced to re-evaluate his life when police in their zest to show ‘cop power’ put him behind bars for substance abuse.
Sartaj Singh on the other hand is a corrupt cop, who is quite happy to turn a blind eye to the drug traffic, till one day it comes too close home. When his younger brother gets hospitalised due to drug overdose, it serves as an eye-opener and he decides to take action. Enter Preet, a doctor who becomes Sartaj’s ally in his battle against narco trade.
What happens when the quadruple converge at critical points in their lives is what forms the rest of the story.
Udta Punjab is not just a movie about war against drugs, against political and systemic complicity but also against one’s own self.
Expletives fly thick and fast as the action shifts from one protagonist to another.
After the unnerving Haider (2014), Shahid Kapoor with his toned and heavily tattooed torso, looks just about perfect for his part as the mercurial Tommy Singh aka Gabru. With all the on-stage swag and the off-stage hysterics, Shahid has nailed the role physically. However it’s what goes on inside of him that we don’t really see enough of, and where he should have done better.
Complementing Shahid’s character quirkiness notably is Alia with her own peculiar act as a Bihari field labourer turned junkie in a totally deglamourised and feral avatar.
Alia is completely out of her comfort zone in a role like this one and yet, she manages to leave a mark. There are instances when her Bihari accent falters, but the way she channels the pain and the incredible strength of a young woman stuck in a hell-hole is undeniably commendable.
Punjabi cinema’s heartthrob Diljit Dosanjh, in his first role in a Bollywood film is nuanced and carries his ambiguous morality with ease. His effortless boy-next-door charms infuse a certain earthiness to a narrative that’s trying to stick close to its Punjabi roots.
The drop in acting, sadly, was Kareena Kapoor as she gives a vanilla performance as a doctor running a rehab centre. Dr Preet, is an embodiment of righteousness and hence too perfect to be true. Even though her character was written shoddily, she should still be expected to act slightly mature in certain scenes, considering she is an industry veteran now.
One of the things that Udta Punjab can truly boast off is the dialogues, replete with all the expletive-loaded lingo. The lines mostly in Punjabi are earthy and rooted in the soil, which add to the authenticity of the story and the characters that inhabit it.
The movie is filled with its fair share of flaws too. The curse of the second half strikes and with utter devastation! Whatever hooks you pre-interval (and a lot does), it completely fails to grip you in the second half as the plot turns intermittently farcical and ultimately makes a mockery of the concerns it set out to raise.
It is as if a completely different director has taken over post-intermission and the film completely unravels, with its Achilles’ heel proving to be the inexplicable inclusion of forced romantic sub-plots. The cop-doc lovey dovey track as well as the tenuous bond between Tommy and the nameless Bihari chick do seem entirely out of place.
Also, in order to put Kareena’s star power to some use, she is turned into a sleuth, where she and her cop companion bizarrely spy around a shady factory, tracking down the bad guys. Cheesy Bollywood at its finest!
Tommy Singh’s reasons for redemption and later his intent to save Alia’s character are not very convincing either. Furthermore, the director is not able to execute and balance the trippy black humour of the writing to the dark themes in the film. This is especially apparent in the climax, which is the lousiest sequence in the film and comes as a huge let down.
Plus, the film is just too damn long. It loses steam towards the end and a little snipping during the indulgent and sluggish latter half could’ve surely saved the story.
Post-interval faults aside, Udta Punjab is uncompromised cinema, something you rarely get to see from B-Town. The film does manage to take the desi audience on a flight like never before.
So like drugs, let’s all join in cursing conventional archaic Bollywood:
Potboilers Di Maa Di!
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