Udta Punjab

Dir: Abhishek Chaubey                          Year: 2016

I knew I had to see the film one more time before I could dare to write anything on it. Now I have, and it got better on second viewing. For me, that is the acid test. A genuinely good film has to get better on second viewing. On third and subsequent viewing, it may hold its impact, or it may wane a little. But on second viewing it has to get better. And this one did.

First things first. It is NOT a public service film on the evils of drug addiction, or an expose of the nexus between the drug mafia and politicians in Punjab. (Just like ‘Anna Karenina’ is NOT a film on adultery and ‘Bombay’ is NOT a film about the Mumbai riots.) Like all good works of fiction it tells a great story involving some engaging characters. And what characters!

Let us take Tommy Singh first. We have seen rock stars on Indian screen before, perhaps the only one aiming at some degree of seriousness  was Imtiaz Ali’s ‘Rockstar’. But that I thought was a wasted opportunity as it did not delve into the character at all and got only the surface contours right. But Tommy Singh is something else. A small town boy, Tejinder Singh from Bathinda lands up in UK through a visa fraud. His musical talent keeps him afloat. Then he gets into drugs and his music starts celebrating drugs explicitly. The public laps it up, mistaking it for cool pop philosophy. (All you Jim Morrison fans, don’t you still think ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much higher I Come on baby, light my fire ‘ or ‘ Show me the way to the next whisky bar’ as some kind of profound lyrics? )  He is a rage. Asian Underground No 3 and all that. Back in Punjab he is even a bigger rage. The easy availability of drugs gives rise to addiction among the youth and Tommy’s music is the gospel. Tommy is God. The Gabaru. But this drug-induced creativity has its limit. ‘Cock’ ‘ Coke’ ‘Cock’ ‘ Coke’…..You are stuck in a groove. No matter how much your roadies cheer you the songs just do not flow. Because you have nothing to say damn it. But Tommy is an artist. And this artist’s block is killing him. He indulges in some more drug-induced bravado. ‘ No one fires Tommy. Only Tommy can fire Tommy’, he tells his record company executive. He goes through the highs and lows of being possessed by the powers of heroin. He goes berserk. He is arrested. In the lock up, he gets his first brush with reality, as his superstar status does not even get him a glass of water. Then he is thrown in with other convicts, many of them drug users and his fans. He learns how one of them had even killed his own mother because she won’t give him the drug money. Tommy realizes what a monster he has been breeding. He realizes it in his bones, because the same monster has been gnawing at his innards too. He is a chastised man. Looking for redemption. His manager is goading him to come up with just another song, an anti-drug song this time, to segue with the government’s war on drugs. Won’t that be a master stroke of PR? Yes. But the song just does not flow. He has a wonderful chord progression. But some crucial piece is missing. His most devoted crew thinks it is the old magic powder that can do the trick. But Tommy knows otherwise. He decides to come clean, he wants to bare his heart to his adoring public. He is a loser, a ‘faddu’, he tells them. The public won’t have any of it. Who wants to lose a messiah ( As St John tells about  the devotees of Jesus in ‘ The Last Temptation of Christ’)? They want him to sing. He pisses on them instead. (Yes, the second viewing was the uncut version leaked on line.) This is the kind of disillusionment with fame built on false premises that made Kurt Cobain take his own life. Tommy pretty much pushes himself on the path of self-destruction. Because the old Tommy must dies before a new one can be born. Redemption comes in the shape of girl named Mary Jane (Though he will learn her name only in the last scene of the film.) It is Mary Jane who helps him get his  mojo back.

Is Tommy Singh a cinematic avatar of Honey Singh? I doubt it. Does such a person exist? Of course not. Is he real? Yes, in the world that the director has created in the film. He is real. And super-real. An artistic exaggeration. Just like all great fictional characters in every art form are – from the Chola-age Parvati to The Joker of Batman to the idiot of Dostoevsky to Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Shahid Kapoor’s performance in the film as Tommy Singh is a revelation. He absolutely nails it. It is rare to find a performance of this level in Hindi cinema where the performer strips himself bare and reveals the soul of the character he is playing. We are so used to the superficial gesticulation of our actors and few lines delivered with a trembling voice with tears in the eyes that we dub something as expressive as this as ‘overacting’ or ‘ loud’. Of course it is nothing of that sort. This is what true acting is about – not mimicking of reality; but interpreting it, giving it an appropriate artistic expression. Shahid Kapoor is remarkably accurate in his portrayal, bringing out the cockiness and bravado of the early Tommy as well as the vulnerability of the latter-day Tommy, broken and lost. He gives it all he has got, holding nothing back; all along staying in key, not missing a single note.

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So we come to Mary Jane – the migrant worker from Bihar who dreamt of coming face to face with good time some day in her life. A district-level hockey player she thought good times will come when she starts playing at the state level. But a family tragedy forces her to seek her livelihood as a farm worker in Punjab. A chance happening makes her think she can take another stab at good times. But destiny’s cruel turn pushes her into forced drug addiction and the life of a sex slave. But she never loses hope as she looks at the calendar on her wall showing the waves of Goa which now symbolizes to her the good times to come.  She fights on whenever she gets the opportunity, right till the end.

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Alia Bhatt, all of 23 and just 6 films old, surprises with the maturity and control she brings to her performance. Not afraid to look ugly, she lays bare the devastation her character is going through graphically, at the same time making us buy into her incredible optimism with her feisty performance.

Then there is Sartaj Singh, the ACP of Punjab Police whose younger brother Balli is a college-going drug addict, who is brought back from death and put through a de-addiction regimen by the idealistic lady doctor Preet Sahani. Balli’s plight weighs heavily on Sartaj’s conscience as Balli was under his custody after the brothers lost their parents when they were young. He goes all out in his fight against the drug trade with Preet as his accomplice and inspiration.

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This is another endearing performance that adds to the texture of the film, standing in contrast to the high intensity of Tommy Singh and Mary Jane, charming us with low-key awkward sincerity of the character. It is tough act to pull off. Sartaj is quite unheroic when he starts out and he is not very smart and he is aware of his limitations. He does not know how to express his feelings for Preet but he tries his best. The superstar of Punjabi cinema, Diljit Dosanjh is pitch-perfect as Sartaj, giving the film a touch of the real, to balance the super-real of Tommy and Mary Jane.

The character of Preet Shahani is meant to be one of a piece with that of Sartaj Singh. But not having a back story is a kind of handicap for Kareena Kapoor Khan. She is not able to give the character a definite direction, not knowing what exactly makes her tick, making her do what she does. She is also the only one who gets to retain her starry looks while the others have made total breaks with their star persona merging totally with the character they play. How I wish, the director had given Kareena a slightly different look that did not remind us so much of Kareena the star. She is the right actor for the play, but somehow she does not play it right. Especially grating is her smiling and simpering act during their forays into the factory that manufactures drugs on the sly. Her jolly self-congratulatory gestures make it look like they are participating in a college treasure hunt. Since many of these factory raids are not particularly suspenseful or gripping, the right amount of gravitas in the performance would have made these sequences more impactful and a little less perfunctory.

This minor quibble aside, the performances, even of all the supporting actors including the devoted Gabaru crew, Sartaj’s younger brother Balli, Satish Kaushik as Tommy’s manager and all the police personnel, are first rate. Director Abhishek Chaubey strings together these performances in a gripping tale crafting a style that evoke the films of Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bharadwaj , but also has a unique signature of its own, which announces itself in the very opening sequence of the film.

It is dark night with trees and shrubs swaying in the gentle breeze. Piercing through this darkness with its headlight growls in a motorbike with three riders. One of them shouts, “Maal nikal!”. Someone takes out a packet, presumably containing something like cocaine or heroin. What next? Are they meeting someone to whom they will hand over the packet? Not quite. The third rider takes the packet, rehearses the move of a discus thrower, and throws the packet over the wire fence, meant to be picked up by their contact on the other side of the border. The packet hurtles through the sky, then stops mid-trajectory as the title ‘ Udta Punjab’ comes up on it. Most on the audience want to clap in appreciation.

The other quintessential scene from the film is the scene where Tommy meets one of the drug handlers who has been beaten up out of shape for bungling the last deal. He is looking desperately for the hapless girl caught up in the lair of heroin peddlers and knows this man can help.  Police is hot on his heels. He latches the door from inside and pleads to the man. He was all lost and this  girl has helped him find himself ….and his mojo. The man recognizes him as Tommy and requests him to sing a song so he can feel a little better. The latch on the door is rattling as Tommy begins the song  without any musical accompaniment ‘ Ikk kudi jihda naam mohabbat, Gum hai, gum hai, gum hai’ or ‘ A girl whose other name is love, is missing, is missing, is missing..’. Slowly the rattling on the door stops. The song is mesmerizing as he soars among the higher notes… ‘Her looks are like that of fairies, Her nature is like that of Mariam.’ As the song nears its end, the rattling slowly starts again.  Tommy jumps pout through the window, and the chase begins. The song Ikk Kudi continues to play in the background, now with full instrumental accompaniment, including the haunting chord progression we had heard so many times before wondering where it was leading us to.

This then is the tenor of the film. Dark. Quirky. Witty. Beautiful. Haunting. Of course there are passages where information is provided on the various aspects of proliferation of drugs in the state – the connivance of the police, the involvement of the politicians and the details of clandestine manufacturing. But these only form the backdrop. In India you need to pretend to be giving some kind of moral lessons and making the public aware of some burning problem, in order to get past the censors and get acceptance among some sections of the audience who still believe the purpose of art is not so much to tell great stories but to hold some kind of mirror to reality and lead the society along the right path. Thankfully these portions, even as they dilute the tone of the film to some extent, do not rob it of its essential character and feel. With poetic leaps, expressionistic performances and vignettes of Punjab which you do not see in regular films – with its bleak country side, tea shops with gas stoves and everyday characters spewing obscenities at the drop of a hat – the film flows on fluidly, aided by a standout background score, featuring mainly electronic ambient sounds, enveloping you in its dark, seductive embrace.

 

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