A panoramic night shot of a long stretch of road surrounded by fields. A trio on a bike, the two-wheeler’s headlights cutting through the night with an efficiency that’s as eerie as it is inevitable. A packet of drugs flung with an action that would give an Olympic discus throw athlete an elbow-locking complex. The packet soaring high in the air, the camera waiting for it in the sky. And that’s where the opening credits for director Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab come rock-and-rolling in. Very neatly, through the credits and the title song (Ud-Daa Punjab, sung with gusto by Vishal Dadlani and composer Amit Trivedi), the director takes you through the endemic problem that he’s planning to neuro-transmit to you through the big, bad screen.
Once the soaring packet lands smack (no pun intended) into Indian land – the packet thrower wears a jersey that’s got Pakistan printed on the back (a map couldn’t have been any more helpful) – Udta Punjab gets to a crackling start. Director Chaubey (he of the sparkling Ishqiya series lineage) and Sudip Sharma wrote the screenplay for this dark, semi-comic mirror of what ails the youth of Punjab. Recent statistics show that about 70% of them are addicted to drugs in some form or the other. It’s a rot that’s hiding in plain sight – local law enforcement officials, borders that are porous, ostensibly impervious check posts that salute the right amount of currency, and local politicians that allow this deadly problem to simmer – while drug enforcement officials look on helplessly. Easy money (gotten by selling off fertile land) and easy access means that the future of Punjab is flying high, and not in a good way. Opioids are replacing trapezoids in the curriculum, while the vicious cycle of money-drugs-money perpetuates and threatens to consume the very fabric of that state. And if you think it’s only Punjab that has drug addicts, welcome to the world of Bollywood, the code(x)- based IT industry in Bangalore, and the raving parties in farmhouses across the country. It’s simply amazing how the mainstream media, while screaming itself hoarse over who-knows-what, has chosen to look the other way in the camera, covering fluff over fluffy powder.
Sobering facts such as these won’t prepare you for the shocking journey that Chaubey has in store for you. The director’s merciless in his portrayal of the journey of the packet of drugs that implodes in the face of at least one major character. There’s no letting up in the tension and the horror for the most part, as you meet Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor), the youth icon of Punjab, a drug-addled musician who raps and rhymes on a high, churning out lyrics that you’d rather not hear at all, but obviously connects to the new cool generation. Tommy’s journey begins on a high, and then descends into a self-dunk of misery and finally a shot at redemption. The scalding journey also ropes in a nameless Bihari migrant worker in the fields (Alia Bhatt), who wants to get rich quick, and she sees the drug packet as the quick way out of the fields, even as she realizes she’s stepped into a minefield of morbid drug inflation that’s as horrifying as it is inexorable. You also meet ASI Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh), a corrupt cop who unflinchingly lets the regular truckload of drugs into his state, until he realizes he’s indirectly feeding his kid brother Bali (Prabhjyot Singh) the very same poison. And there’s Dr. Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan), who’s fighting a seemingly hopeless battle to rehabilitate the toxified youth in her area. With this cast of characters, director Chaubey spins a tale that goes out control for all of them, and you’re dragged into the world of craving, co-dependence, withdrawal symptoms, and negative reinforcement.
And every one of the actors is a standout. Shahid Kapoor as the addicted junkie is top-class. His is the only role that has shades of satire and black comedy, even as he takes you on a roller-coaster ride of euphoria and dysphoria. When his character is high, Shahid’s eyes explode with maniacal energy; when he’s not on drugs, his eyes are a fifty shades of hopelessness and limp impossibility. Shahid’s only comic and family foil is the enjoyable Tayaji (Satish Kaushik), who’s also the only one who lends a semblance of support. Kareena Kapoor is absolutely believable and in character – she’s low-key, bereft of mannerisms, and quietly efficient. The young Prabhjyot Singh is superbly scary as the portrait of an addicted school-going kid, his eyes a scary amalgamation of desperation and teenage angst. Diljit Dosanjh as the corrupt cop-turned-loose-cannon-vigilante is pitch-perfect and inescapably likeable. If there’s a sobriquet for him, it has to be the Parambrita (Chatterjee) of Punjab. And then there’s Alia Bhatt, whose character traverses a journey of drugs and exploitation that’s almost unbearable to watch. And Alia rides the dreadful churn with such intensity and natural force, that you are left with no choice but to be awestruck by her tremendously affecting performance. And when she lets loose with a hockey stick, you want to scream out, “Goal!”
Udta Punjab also soars because of some nifty editing chops by Meghna Sen – she snips between Shahid and Alia’s journey so smoothly, you can’t help but doff your hat to her. The cinematography by Rajeev Ravi is scarily down-to-earth; every shot is believable and makes you part the action and tension. The scene where Diljit and Kareena’s characters play detective in a suspected drug factory is extremely well executed – you can almost smell the lab flasks and barrels even as you cringe in nail-biting tension. The sound design by Kunal Sharma and team is another high – note the scene where Alia is screaming out her angst, walking as every sob and cry is pushing her forward, the camera track in front of her, and out of focus, Shahid ambushed by a bunch of goons behind. Alia’s cries encompass your senses, even as you can hear the muffled sounds of Shahid being pummeled behind- truly, an awesome experience in the cinema hall.
Amit Trivedi is in fine form, as he composes some very gritty, grungy, and superb songs. To me, however, the stand out track was Ikk Kudi (based on an older song), sung with feeling and maturity by Shahid Mallya. Add to that, those lovely guitar riffs that the composer uses, part of which took me back to Rahul Dev Burman’s unforgettably haunting horse-trotting Raju Chal Raju (Azad). The background score by Benedict Taylor and Naren Chandavarkar is dark with a tense rhythm that matches the tenor of the movie’s landscape.
Udta Punjab, then, is a gut-wrenching effort by Abhishek Chaubey, not flawless, but then what in life is? The movie traverses the same trajectory that a drug abuser would be all too familiar with – a whooping high followed by a misery-cocooned crash to reality. And that is the true message that it injects into you – drug addiction is nothing but a dead-end, and any teenager who watches this movie will realize that with a sickening realization. And, as with drug users, when the drug effect wears off, the movie makes you feel pretty much the same thing – uncomfortably numb with shock and awareness.
Watch the trailer of Udta Punjab here: