Okay, so right off the bat; Is Udta Punjab worth all this hue and cry? The answer is NO. The film with its recent history of a prolonged battle with the censorship authorities and the entire ‘freedom of expression’ debate, making headlines and ruling airwaves, simply failed to fly, per se. To use the metaphor in the title, it barely jogged for a few scenes, fell flat on its face and more or less stayed there for the rest of its runtime.
The film deals with multiple strands and various characters whose lives, either directly or by some other means, tend to revolve around the drug menace in Punjab. Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is a hip-hop star carrying the monkey on his back, full time. Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) is a corrupt policeman, who happily turns a blind eye to the drug traffic, till one day the menace comes knocking on his own door. Dr Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan), who runs a rehab clinic, helps Sartaj in taking up the mantle in the drug crusade. And finally there is the girl with no name played by Alia Bhatt, a district level hockey player who fell on hard times and ended up as a farm labourer in Punjab. She stumbles upon a piece of a larger drug consignment and the narrative strands begin to converge.
Contrary to the expectations created from the trailer and also the pre-release controversy, the film establishes a firm moral universe within the first few scenes. There is a controlled and sanitized excess in the scenes with Tommy, just enough for the film to frown upon this ‘degenerate’ lifestyle and yet not disturbing the comfort zone of Bollywood audience. What these scenes effectively do is to present this character as a sinner embarking on a path to redemption. And this turn takes place in a rather badly conceived and badly written scene inside a police lock up where Tommy encounters Punjabi youngsters suffering from severe drug addiction. Really? Which planet is he from?
And the moment the film decides to go down the path of redemption, there comes the inevitable question of reward, following a standard Hollywood/Catholic logic. And reward comes in the form of a dark skinned Bihari migrant labourer played by Alia Bhatt, a classic damsel-in-distress being tarnished in body and soul by the evil Drug mafia, and in immediate need of rescuing. Having said that, this fairy tale structure is still probably the most coherent thing in the entire film. The rest of the screenplay is filled with simplistic approaches and cliché dialogue scenes woven together following a logic of sheer convenience. For instance, the Alia Bhatt character is an aspiring hockey player just so that she’d have a hockey stick handy to beat a little mob black and blue and save an intoxicated Tommy. Similarly, the moment Tommy becomes the knight in search of the princess, the years of cocaine abuse comes to an end without any sign of withdrawal syndrome, while others in their attempt to quit are puking the five rivers out of their guts! As for the other strand, the film either became clueless or felt threatened by the idea of a couple where the woman is economically and socially independent and decided to kill her off and leave it at that!
Given such writing, it is indeed a next-to-impossible job for other technical departments to salvage the film. When a film becomes so self-righteous and tries to address all sorts of issues in a single film, the editing is bound to suffer. It was quite smart and even intelligent in its cutting logic for the first twenty minutes or so. By the time the second half begins, the editor has clearly lost interest and inspiration. The symptom is even more glaring in cinematography. Rajeev Ravi’s frames look tired and uninspired and mere repetitions of what he has previously done and done effectively especially in the films of Anurag Kashyap. One is especially disappointed with the whole drug abuse scene, something he treated masterfully in Kashyap’s Dev D (2009). The writing keeps swaying back and forth between a sentimental drama and a black comedy and consequently the images also fail to find a consistency.
Now, to get back to the first question raised in the article, the only intrigue about the film seems to be the reason for all the fuss with the censorship authorities. The film is absolutely moralist and preachy in its attitude. If anything, it only reinforces the right wing dogma, not just about vices but values like family, friendship, masculinity and role of women! It seems that even the State needs a new chief for the Censor Board, because this one clearly doesn’t know friends from foes.
Arup Ratan Samajdar