You so want to like and support Abishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab for all the hassles it faced before its release. And it has to be said – there is nothing so objectionable in it that sent the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) into such a tizzy. Thankfully for the film though, the entire episode of its legal fight gave it far more publicity than it could dream of and a must-see buzz. But the big disappointment in all this is that the film itself is a big let down.
About the one solid point the film makes about the drug issue in Punjab is that it affects people from all walks of life. These could folks as diverse as a young Bihari migrant worker (Alia Bhatt), a brattish rock star (Shahid Kapoor) and a policeman (Diljit Dosanjh), who works very much in the system. Otherwise to be honest, Udta Punjab isn’t really a political film. Sure, it tells us there’s a drug problem in Punjab having affected millions, it drops some facts in its dialogue here and there, it tells us about the nexus between suppliers, dealers, the police force and politicians but without any great depth or proper social context as it prefers not to delve into the history or causes of the issue. Which is fine as a film needn’t be all about issues. Udta Punjab focusses, instead, largely around the internal and external conflicts of its central characters as it unflinchingly shows us the dark side of drugs and thankfully, doesn’t not glamorize them at all. On the flip side, the threads just don’t hold up well enough in spite of some powerful moments, some striking visual flair and even the occasional unexpected touches of humor (the ‘discus thrower’ warming up to gather strength for hurling the package across the border) amidst all the darkness.
The film follows three major strands. Alia Bhatt is a spunky young hockey player from Bihar. Working in the fields, she comes across a drug package from across the border in Pakistan, which she tries to peddle herself and ends up digging a horrific hole for herself; substance abuser and full-of-himself rock star Shahid Kapoor’s eyes open in self-realization when in lock-up after one of his typical drug induced outbursts, two young fans, who have murdered their mother for drug supply money, tell him they consider him their role model; and assistant police inspector Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) is happy to play within the rules and get his cut for allowing fee thoroughfare of the drugs until he finds his little brother, Balli, has become an addict.
The writing, however, is weak and Shahid and Alia’s characters, in particular, suffer from characterizations that needed to be fleshed out better even if Alia’s descent into hell does have its odd moments. The choppy film doesn’t let us enter their minds or have enough empathy for them or relate to their introspections for us to go along with them. In fact, even though he exudes great energy and executes some fantastic dancing moves as a performer in the musical numbers, Shahid, while completely convincing in these sequences, comes across as unintentionally funny in his bleaker scenes. And yes, even as one appreciates that as stars, Shahid and Alia have opted to go way beyond their comfort zone, the film ends up highlighting the fact that they still have some way to go as actors. Just putting on darker make-up to become a Bihari girl, for instance, doesn’t automatically qualify it as a good performance. It also doesn’t help that their ‘romantic’ track is among the weakest parts of the film and appears rather forced. They had the entire hall loudly guffawing loudly at their supposedly intense scene when they first meet with him on the run and she helping him hide, which pretty much killed the entire sequence.
If one performance shines in the film, it is that of Punjabi actor Diljit Dosanjh. He strikes a credible chord in the film and is easy going and natural and captures the various shades of his character perfectly. Kareena Kapoor Khan again is a victim of poor characterization, playing a unidimensional good doctor treating among others, Balli, and there’s little she can do to rise above the role. The supporting actors, though, are well cast and appear to belong to the milieu and region.
On the technical side, cinematographer Rajeev Ravi manages to give the film a certain atmospheric feel even if he’s done better and Amit Trivedi’s music is energetic and suitably manic, but the overall pace and the almost two and a half hours running time tell heavily on the film.
All in all, while one applauds Udta Punjab’s courage and victory in the larger battle for freedom of expression of filmmakers against the tyranny of the CBFC, the icing on the cake would have been had the film lived up to its potential. As it is, Udta Punjab just about takes off but thereafter fails to soar.
Hindi, Punjabi, Drama, Color