Udta Punjab : Movie Review
Rating : 4.5 stars out of 5 (Outstanding)
Director : Abhishek Chaubey
Co-writer : Sudip Sharma
Producers : Anurag Kashyap, Ekta Kapoor et al
Hindi (2016) , English subtitles available
89 cuts - that's not the number of lacerations on a murder victim you may think I am referring to. It was the number of scene deletions for 'Udta Punjab' (Flying Punjab) ordered by CBFC - the Central Board of Film Certification - in India. Allegations of promoting drug abuse and influencing elections aside, this serves as a ripe reminder of what happens in certain parts of our world if you try to get too ambitious with your films. Forget a pat on the back, you'll be grabbed by your scruff and get snipped-'n'-shaven bald.
And how's the film? Director Abhishek Chaubey takes a Punjab Da Tractor , then enlists co-writer Sudip Sharma's guidance in replacing it with a Boeing plane engine , and motors it gloriously over the ravaged fields of this superbly liberating movie. 'Udta Punjab' is fearless in ripping bare the narcotic menace and creeping systemic rot that plagues the Punjab of today.
The plot runs on many smartly interwoven tracks but far from seeming gimmicky, it reveals the drug problem on multiple levels. The four principal characters are all youngsters - it would have been better had at least one of them been an older character.
A young labourer (Alia Bhatt) tumbles into a hellish vortex aided by forced drugs, while at the richer end of the spectrum , a famous pop star - Tommy, 'The Gabru' (Shahid Kapoor) - slowly aims for wonderfully loopy redemption after getting thoroughly scandalized. A assistant police inspector (Diljit Dosanjh) neck-deep in corruption, also decides to risk personal holocaust after he 'sees the light', helped in this rebirth by a fearless lady doctor ( Kareena Kapoor).
This painfully direct film is not interested is dispensing homilies while its awakened audience humbly listens. Tommy overcomes his demons onstage to tell the crowd the true nature of overall trip they'll have with narcotics but his adoring fans heckle him to stop the 'bhaashan', and get on with the song or get out. An impressively steady Diljit Dosanjh as the transformed cop, says "This is not about you or me , it's about Punjab" but his listener instead of getting moved and inspired ,lashes out and snarls why the fig anyone should care so much for Punjab.
The political nexus, election-profiteering from mass-dispensed narcotics as bribes, and even lower-rung policemen getting Rs.40,000 per month as commission to keep quiet , while youngsters easily pick up pheniramine-buprenorphine combos from pharmacies for Rs.50 per bottle, all tip us off on how a wide swathe of the public is enabled to waste their life. Who will you complain to, when the authorities themselves have sold their souls? Redemption only lies in putting yourself in danger, but who is prepared to do such a silly thing?
Young Alia again shows gumption by sensitively essaying a trenchantly non-glamorous role, while Kareena compliments her glowing beauty with natural acting finesse that builds her character as a truly special one rather than an artificial goody-two-shoes.
In a career-best performance, Shahid Kapoor nails it as a fallen rock legend who escapes caricature and becomes crowd-cheeringly heroic. It's now becoming clearer that his talents are far better showcased by daring directors than by 'safe' mainstream ones.
Humour is smartly sprinkled in to ease the unremitting traumatic edge. The 'congregation in a courtyard' climax, deliciously crackles with black humour and tension. The end still manages realism instead of sugar-coating.
Cynics will still manage to find all kinds of politics and publicity in the film's CBFC imbroglio, but I favourably regard the Bombay High Court's ruling to release the film with only 1 minor cut. Producer Anurag Kashyap's formidable achievements in cinema by blending social concern with art, now include one more golden feather. He has, by now, been at the receiving end of film censorship so long that he must have enough thesis material for ten different candidates on a PhD on Indian film censorship.
Twenty years ago there were neither the producers nor an audience for an A-list gutsy film like this one, but now even after the hoopla has subsided, the film is doing fine at the box office. Hearteningly this means we have not just an Udta Punjab but also an Udta Bhaarath!
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