So, Pahlaj Nihalani’s heroic efforts went in vain and Udta Punjab did not go the way of Paanch or Libaas. That surely is good news. Not that I am too optimistic about the society but at least for once, the uncouth moral brigade had to bite the dust. But what about the film itself? Was it worth the hype? I did wait eagerly for this is one and caught it on the very first day of release. However, my opinion remains mixed at best.
The film starts in an expected but effective manner. A brainless, drug addicted rapper with a cult following (Shahid Kapoor as Tommy Singh), a young labourer girl looking to make some quick bucks (Alia Bhatt as a nameless Bihari immigrant), a corrupt cop whose younger brother gets addicted to the drugs he allows to be smuggled in return of bribes (Diljit Dosanjh as Sartaj), and a sincere and gutsy doctor trying to fight the menace beyond her means (Kareena as Dr. Preet Sahni).
The film tries to use the hyperlink format that is widely popular nowadays. Each character has their own struggles but their paths keep crossing and eventually they all converge at the climax. The problem with this format is that it is hard to do justice to so many characters and also the film keep keeps dragging to accommodate so many threads, unless backed with some impeccable writing. This is what happens with Udta Punjab too. I loved the thread with Alia Bhatt, who also delivers an excellent performance despite having to speak with an awkward accent. It does not break any new grounds but we at least understand why she does what she does. But the other threads were not fully realized. We do not know why Tommy Singh behaves the way he does and what causes his sudden transformation, although Shahid does a terrific work of caricaturing some popular Punjabi pop culture icons. We do not know why Kareena risks her life and career to take up those risky detective work. Diljit Dosanjh makes an excellent debut by playing somewhat confused and tentative simpleton stuck in the system but his arc with Kareena remains the most generic and unconvincing.
Udta Punjab is technically and stylistically competent like most new age films are. Rajiv Ravi’s cinematography is top notch but for a film dealing in drug addiction, the visuals never reach the surreal, trippy heights of Dev.D and the same can be said about Amit Trivedi’s songs. This brings me to the main issue that I had with the film, that it all remains too simplistic! We have the villains, the usual politicians, cops and other parts of the dreaded “system”. From drug trade to sexual slavery, nothing is too gross for them. But we have had such villains right from the early days of Bollywood. The film shies away from true greatness by refusing to explore more inconvenient truths. Why Punjab, a more prosperous and well-to-do state compared to most others, is taking to drugs in such a big manner? Corrupt politicians are everywhere but why the youth in Punjab are suddenly doping themselves to death in big numbers?
Abhishek Chaubey, just like in his Ishqiya films, comes up with a promising project that does not go the whole diastance. He does not enter the dark recesses of a drug addict’s mind, or explores the intricacies of drug supply networks beyond the basics. He has some interesting ideas, can pull off some black humor (especially the climax was entertaining although incredulous), creates some eccentric and interesting characters, but never goes deeper beneath the stylish surface. So, we’ll have to wait for a definitive film on the contemporary drug issues of Punjab or for that matter, of the entire country. But you can still watch it as a slap on the face of the proponents of censorship if nothing else.