In an early scene in Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab, Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor), Punjab’s biggest pop star, runs behind the car of a music studio baron. Tommy’s furious because his album contract fell through, and the man in the car is responsible. In the next scene, we see Tommy through the front seat of that car, through that man’s point of view. Tommy is running, shouting, and cursing, but we can’t hear him, only see him. Tommy, who was snorting cocaine a few minutes ago, looks tired; he also looks comical: a man who, in that brief period of time, looks angry, agitated and restless without a reason, like how drug addicts often do to those untouched by its influence. In a few hours, Tommy will calm down and begin to think straight, but then it’ll be time for another hit.
Later, it’s implied that the man, stirring a few political contacts, has gotten Tommy arrested. Tommy is an incorrigible addict who should ideally spend his afternoons in a rehab centre, as opposed to a recording studio. The drug trade in Punjab keeps giving Tommy his high, but he’s just a consumer or, more accurately, a victim. In fact, it’s the people at the top of this drug chain—the politicians, the cops, the bureaucrats—who are perpetually tripping: on their power and priviledge, on the knowledge that they have rendered an entire generation useless, robbing them of choice.
If drug addiction’s an endless cycle that keep repeating itself, not offering hope or respite, then Udta Punjab’s principal characters, even those who aren’t addicts, are stuck at some point in their lives. Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh), an assistant inspector in Punjab police, is stuck with his peers and within a system that treats him like a cog in the wheel, that doesn’t allow him to effect any substantial change. Preet Singh (Kareena Kapoor), a doctor who also runs a rehab centre, can save drug addicts from dying, but her ambition of reforming them, due to lack of social awareness, remains unfulfilled. A Bihari migrant (Alia Bhatt, whose character’s name isn’t revealed in the movie) longs to escape her kidnappers and rapists. Tommy wants to step out of his mould and create meaningful music, but the paying public, his fans, wants him to keep his forte: regurgitating songs centered on drugs.
Even if Udta Punjab hadn’t been about the drug abuse in Punjab, the film, due to the different characters it diligently delineates, would have still been a compelling drama. Udta Punjab’s characters comprise a motley group and, refreshingly for a Bollywood film, cuts across class, who are foils for each other, implying the drug trade’s reach in the state, and those affected by it: Sartaj has “only passed BA with third division”, while Preet is expectedly more sophisticated; Tommy’s a star but lacks poise; Bhatt’s character, a poor and desperate outsider in a drug-riddled state, who can’t speak its language, is the quintessential marginalised migrant. Given that these four characters have different social standing, their intersection isn’t obvious, but this is precisely where Sudip Sharma and Chaubey’s writing soars, which is an ingenious mix of smarts and art.
For the most part of the film’s first half, the individual stories often pause at key dramatic moments (so that the audience is continuously invested in their outcomes); however, Sharma and Chaubey also gradually reduce the overall narrative segments in the movie, so that it’s easy to keep pace with it. So by making Preet work with Sartaj (a writing choice that makes both thematic and logical sense), the film’s only juggling three different stories after a point, and by its climax, when Tommy meets Bhatt’s character, the film’s revolving around just two of them. Here, the stories seem to find each other naturally and due to their own volition, and not as a result of screenwriting convenience. And even when the writing suffers from few flaws—Bhatt’s Bihari twang is quite unconvincing (and, at times, has an unintended comical effect), Preet and Sartaj’s investigation into the illicit drug trade is facile—it’s not for the lack of effort.
In Udta Punjab’s initial portion, for instance, even though one story cuts to the next with a lot of élan, the film feels incomplete and clinical, for its emotional core is missing. But Chaubey and Sharma correct that post-interval, where the film’s heartfelt and disturbing, searing with tension and meaning, while maintaining its focus and purpose. But what’s more impressive? The fact that Chaubey doesn’t preach or explain; he doesn’t deign to educate us about the drugs’ political and social dangers; how they’re raising an entire generation of slaves: young men with plump veins and droopy eyes who can’t think beyond, and will do anything for, their next hit. In Udta Punjab, characters perform actions, and they face consequences: as simple as that. Tommy’s descend into the depths of addiction costs him not only moral and physical degradation, but also loss of identity, where he, in an oddly comical scene, is mistaken for his lookalike. It affects his fans, young teenagers and adults, emulating their idol, who is clueless himself. It affects their families who are left clutching on to hopes and miracle. It makes the victims scavengers, and the orchestrators beasts, who will dupe, molest and murder, do just about anything, to keep the machine churning.
Till now, we’ve only read, and been told, about Punjab’s drug problem, and the numbers are horrifying—an annual consumption of opioids worth Rs 7,500 crore, nearly 9 lakh users—but Udta Punjab shows what they truly mean: a fourteen-year-old banging the locked door of his own house, desperate to leave his family for drugs; a young girl chewing a discarded bone of chicken; a performer who can’t differentiate between singing and snorting. In Udta Punjab or, let’s just say, Punjab, drugs are easy to procure and easier to snort, inhale, and inject, giving a kick that lasts for few hours—but the scars, both physical and psychological, remain far longer—holding in their sway lakhs of those who’ve forgotten to sleep, and forgotten to wake up.
This review was first published in the Wire.