‘Udta Punjab’: a choppy infectious optimism

Mumbai, June 18: Growing up in Delhi one always felt something extremely reassuring, secure and comforting about the Sikh and Punjabi elders around, much more than the seniors of any other community. They seemed to ooze an infectious optimism and positivity.

No wonder a scene in ‘Udta Punjab’ broke my heart and betrayed these long-held beliefs in a mere instant. A patriarch gently addresses the Bihari migrant girl Pinky (Alia Bhatt, utterly real, raw and vulnerable) as “puttar” (child) and asks her why she stole heroin worth a crore if she had to eventually throw it away. The soft, soothing enquiry sets the most disturbing tenor for the viciousness and brutality that come to be heaped on her by his family of drug dealers, with his tacit nod of approval, of course. ‘Udta Punjab’ is all about swallowing such bitter pills.

Chaubey exposes us to the frightening dystopia it has become in the past few years. And it’s not something out of his own fictional hat but rooted in the State’s unfortunate present. That the drug menace could turn it into a lawless Mexico (remember Traffic) is not just something that the film cries foul about but has been reported, read, seen and heard all along the way. But it acquires an added urgency and manic immediacy when it begins to unfold on the big screen.

No surprise then that the film is forced to kick off with one of the longest disclaimers seen recently. A packet of heroin gets thrown like a discus from across the border and we are plunged into a pulsating, frenetic world of rock ‘n’ roll and drugs, of snorting chitta (white) powder, injecting a cocktail of liquids into the veins. Rock star Tommy (Shahid Kapoor, all sound and fury and sheer madness) aka Gabru takes you straight on the trip and gets you high. But Chaubey also breaks the frenzy and hallucination of the title track with the sad, worn out and gloomy faces of the ordinary, nameless addicts. The film might feel a trifle too loud and feverish for comfort at the start but you settle into its wildness and delirium in a matter of time. And you are totally in tune by the time a newly rehabilitated Tommy addresses his fans: “I composed a song on drugs and you turned it into your philosophy. You are even bigger losers than I am.”

Not once does Chaubey glamorise the use of drugs. Nor does he turn exploitative with the grime, filth and muck. In fact the film is unpleasant, disturbing and raw in the way it lays the abuse bare. The lives lost to addiction cut an immensely sorry figure, more so the desperate families when things reach home, when it’s no longer about “Sadde munde theek, horan de kharab (our kids are fine, it’s the others who have turned wayward)”. It’s a Hotel California everyone is trapped in with no signs of escape. Simultaneously Chaubey also shows the long and tough road to recovery. His moral core is strong and firm. It’s a war against drugs, against political and systemic complicity (Badal anyone) and against one’s own self. In the madness all around there are two voices of sanity and transformation –ASI Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh, easy going, charming and nuanced) who gets sensitised to the issue when his own brother Balli turns an addict and doctor Preet (Kareena Kapoor, a figure of hope in her calm, untainted self), waging a war against substance abuse all on her own.

The authenticity is not just in the issue or the locale but in the expletive-loaded lingo and lyrics as well. The film’s music matches the mood and the messaging. Much of the dialogue and songs are in Punjabi. Most of the entire dark theme also echoes in the wry humour that is so typically Punjabi, like a cop calling the drug problem Green Revolution Part 2.