Thanks to Pahlaj Nihalni’s ceaseless attempts to win Modiji’s Number One chamcha award and Arvind Kejriwal’s equally persistent attempt to make pretty much everything about him, and the pre-release brouhaha fitting perfectly in with the narrative of “intolerant as North Korea”, which in the absence of a functioning opposition has emerged as Modi’s biggest enemy, an idea rather than a party, Udta Punjab was political even before it hit the screens.
And once you have seen it, you realize, that regardless of what came before it, Udta Punjab was always going to be political, intensely political.
Everyone knew Bihar had no law. Thank you Prakash Jha. Everyone knew that Bhais rule Mumbai. Every Sanjay Dutt film tells us that.
But Punjab? Wasn’t it, for the rest of India, the land of plenty, of rustic simplicity, of sarson da khet through which lovers ran into each other’s arms, of “Singh is King”s, jolly bhangra-dancing and loud-laughing, of hearts bigger than the outdoors, of bravery, friendship and love?
Not any more. Broken buildings and broken men in their shadows, catatonic from drugs, politicians handing out bottles of drugs in lieu of blankets, the police under the control of politicians and the drug-mafia (beat the driver, as a wisened cop says, but don’t damage the trucks of the drug-transporters, because, as we know, in Punjab, a truck is personal), toxic intoxicants available in neighborhood pharmacies, violence and sexual slavery in place of dance and love, and foul language that would make Gulzar go “ma di behen di”.
How did that Punjab become this Punjab, how did the sylvan fantasy become this post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare?
Questions will be asked, by those whose idea of India is from what they watch in films, and the answers, they will find if they care to follow up, will be political.
In that respect, Udta Punjab is a success. Films, not all but at least some, have to be political, they need to shock, they need to provoke, they need to show the world as it is, they need to trigger conversations, and they need to be reviewed by Kejriwal.
And Udta Punjab does all of it. Excellently. That and the music. Excellently.
Where it falls short of greatness is the way it tries to interleave the four character-arcs, in a way reminiscent of other iconic narco-dramas. It tries to do a bit of “multi-perspective deconstruction of the drug-trade” like Traffic and a bit of “descent into a personal hell” like Requiem for a Dream, and it tries to do a bit of dark comedy too, and some romance, and ends up having too many balls in the air at a time to make it all work. It succeeds in one of the threads, Alia Bhatt’s, because she puts in a command performance, despite the mildly inauthentic Bihari accent, and because she has the most fully-realized character arc. I realize that for many Shahid Kapoor’s character, the conflicted bumbling fool of a rock-star, will be a favorite, but at least for me, it was largely a caricature, like an over-acted street-play on the effects of drugs, his motivations and conflict ill-defined, though he does have some great lines which makes his scenes eminently watchable. The real problem is with the Kareena-Diljit Dosanjh part of the film, the investigation formulaic and cliched and too much Deus Ex Machina, with Kareena (by the way, when did she start asking to be credited as Kareena Kapoor Khan)’s character reminiscent of the Sekhar Suman character in Tridev, never something to aspire for in a serious film. Diljit is a natural hero, with a Ranbir Kapoor vibe, but despite the starpower he exudes, he is bogged down by the weakest quadrant of Udtaa Punjab, Kareena Khan, who often seems to be, for the want of a better word, in the wrong film, as if she wandered off the sets of another movie shooting next door, and I kind of shut myself off during her scenes, wanting to jump ahead to Alia Bhatt story, and that is as much a testament to Alia Bhatt’s acting chops as it is a indictment of Kareena Khan.
But be as it may, Udta Punjab is definitely worth a watch.
Is it however worthy of some of the encomiums that have come its way?
That is too political a question to answer.