Udta Punjab is no Trainspotting. Nor is it a Requiem For A Dream. What's common to all these films is, of course, that they are all movies on drug abuse. The two films we just mentioned are particularly well-known for the way they get the viewer to see, and perhaps even feel, what the drug user experiences. Boyle and Arronofsky (and even Kashyap to an extent, with Dev D
) successfully construct a visual and aural, and even emotional, projection of psychotropic experiences. Udta Punjab doesn't manage to be that kind of an overwhelming cinematic experience, but you can't deny that it is a screamingly good film.
That, we believe, justifies the 7.5. Superb, but not quite there.
There are many more intriguing concerns, too. Like how the plot is actually two unrelated distinct stories. One with a drug-addict popstar (Shahid Kapoor) who may have to start looking for redemption and a Bihari girl (Alia Bhatt) who comes to Punjab as agricultural labour and chances upon heroin falling from the sky. The other story has to do with a jovially corrupt cop (Diljit Dosanjh) who soon stops seeing the humour in corruption and a doctor (Kareena Kapoor Khan) who runs rehab clinics for addicts such as the younger brother of the aforementioned cop.
The intriguing part is how these stories never feel like they are unrelated. Their coming together isn't like the confluence of multiple plots a la Amores Perros (or closer home, Yuva
) because these stories practically never meet or fuse together. They still come out to be the same film, though. Like strangers who bond on a train, they are different stories but theirs is a single journey. This is a little feat of direction that Chaubey can demand a hat tip for.
Moving on, a bit of marvel is the casting of Alia Bhatt as a Bihari farm labourer. And the generally bubbly and urban-chic star more than vindicates this decision. We knew she was a natural actor but all her roles so far had her feel at home. However, her turn here as the freckled, tanned, accented village girl is a revelation as exciting as watching her stand up to Hooda in Highway
. Just the way she holds the chunni wrapped around her head tells you she's comfortably settled in her character. Fitting into the role aside, she emotes without restraint. But that's something we have come to expect of Bhatt anyway.
Not far behind, Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Diljit Dosanjh, too, snugly occupy their characters and emote likewise. Dosanjh, a big star in Punjab, gives us the vibes we got from Parambrata Chatterjee (another regional star from the other end of the country) in Kahaani
. Affable, energetic and talented both these actors seem, but we can assure you Dosanjh is the better of the two. Kareena Kapoor Khan, on the other hand, gives you enough reason to empathize with Dosanjh's character on why he gets so smitten with her. In one scene he embarrassedly proclaims "Aap itna perfect ho...".
It is the Shahid Kapoor portion, though, that lets us understand why Udta Punjab didn't come out to be what it could have been. His is the part where the actual drug use is represented but it all seems surprisingly ordinary. We are informed that drugs cause intense hallucinatory experiences but at no point does the viewer get a glimpse into this experience. Kapoor can act and has acted brilliantly, but the overall effect is one of observing him from a distance and not one of being there with him, and certainly not one of entering his psyche.
The music in these portions, too, is tepid. The trance like psychedelic experience that music can achieve is not exploited. It becomes more of a satire on Yo Yo Honey Singh when it really should have been an exploration into why and how people like this music. The pulsating catchy beats in this score can catch anyone unawares but the film doesn't give you such fare. If their point was to show this culture as unattractive, they have made a mistake. The true problem with this culture is that it is attractive. It is so attractive that it could feel disgusting. But perhaps, that is a very difficult aspect to film.
But when Udta Punjab moves to the stories of its characters, when it lets tenderness take over, it becomes a complete triumph. Everything works. The actors, like we mentioned before, beautifully convey their emotions. The music pulses its way into your heart, and the visuals serve the movie faithfully. Chaubey, who made the one and one-and-a-half Ishqiyas
, still retains that capacity to compose a stirring moment of human emotions. Watch out for that scene with Shahid Kapoor meeting two of his fans in jail. The half-lit face of his truly signals the beginning of his remorse.
However, possibly the most intriguing thing about Udta Punjab is that it got released. With the kind of choking censoring environment in this country, it is a miracle that filmmakers still want to and try to make movies like this. At the beginning of this review we commented on films like Trainspotting and Requiem For A Dream. But Danny Boyle is treated like national treasure in the UK and Arronofsky has no less adulation in the US. These people can fear nothing when they conceive a script and execute it. To do the same in a country where films could outright be banned for realistic portrayals of society is a victory in itself.
Udta Punjab isn't particularly hard-hitting but is, nonetheless, a tender film which ably narrates two engaging stories. Just make sure to pitch your expectations right when you walk into the hall.