Film Review: Udta Punjab

The Golden Temple, the Khalsa, colorful turbans, embroidered shalwar kameezes, dazzling mehndi decorations , Sardarji humor, Bhangra hits, Qawwali ballads.

All of these come to mind when we envision the Land of Five Rivers. Known for its abundance of farming land, Punjab never fails to live up to its reputation adownload (2)s the ‘breadbasket of the Indian subcontinent’.

However, despite its feat in feeding a country of one billion, the fertile soil of this idyllic agricultural paradise also breeds a substantial yield of a venomous species of crops. Behind the veneer of this picturesque wonderland is a drug-infested black hole, suffocating anyone who voluntarily jumps in. Even Siraj ud-Daulah would have cringed, flabbergasted as such an inhumane sight.

udta-punjab-trailer-0001The film opens with a concert featuring the heartthrob sensation Tommy Singh, an unsubtle allusion to Yo Yo Honey Singh. His unkempt hair and devil-may-care demeanor never fails to entice his impressionable young audience. His lyrics allude to his own indulgence of the devil’s dust, which, as he lamented in a later scene, is the only thing he knows. His intoxication habits push him into a downward spiral, forcing him to acknowledge the negative influence he has on his fans. However, when he attempts to reform his image, his efforts backfire.

Alia Bhatt plays a nameless Bihari migrant seeking employment in Punjab’s farm land. She unassumingly stumbles upon kilos of drugs tucked away in bags. She retrieves these drugs and becomes a distributor, earning herself extra cash to survive in a foreign region. However, her naivety and inexperience in the underground  business leads to an unintentioned encounter with a drug gang.

Sartaj is a turban-clad one-star police officer. Due to his father’s untimely death, he has taken on the role of the primary breadwinner for his family, which includes his wayward, sunglasses-wearing brother, Bali. The migrant girl encounters Bali near a cave in the outskirts of a town, injecting heroin with his friends. She proposes a business proposition, selling kilos of drugs to Bali. Sartaj finds himself petrified when he sees Bali on a hospital bed, overdosed on heroin. Bali’s life is saved by a compassionate physician named Preet Sahani, who proposes rehabilitation for Bali and firmly clarifies that only he has the willpower to cleanse himself.

udta-punjab-preet-and-sartajAfter initially scolding Sartaj for his department’s role in exacerbating the drug epidemic by accepting bribes, Preet Sahani, with Sartaj’s assistance, fearlessly embarks on a mission to uncover the key players behind the Punjab drug trade.

Political films have always been a source of controversy in any film industry. In India, this genre of cinema is consistently threatened with widespread bans by the Censor Board, despite India’s patriotic pride in its democratic ideals. Before its release, the producers of Udta Punjab had to endure the draconian imposition of the reigning Central Board for Film Certification, where Sanskar is favored over free speech and sensitivity is favored over truth. It seems left-wing academics and SJW tumblr bloggers do not have a monopoly over political correctness. Thankfully, the Central Board allowed the theatrical release of the film on June 17th.

With a blend of dark humor, heart-wrenching dialogues, and painstaking gore, Udta Punjab is a gloomy picture, depicting the often-ignored drug epidemic plaguing the Punjab region. The  central characters represent the different facets of comtemporary society affected by this epidemic. Internal conflicts ensue as these characters are confronted with the consequences of their lifestyle.

Tommy Singh, whose music exalted intoxication, comes face to face with his devotees, whose lives were ruined by those same intoxicants.

Sartaj, whose occupation in the police force techniquely makes him an accessory to the drug trade, is now burdened with an addicted brother.

The day-laboring migrant, in her quest to earn extra cash and a livelihood, finds herself locked in a room, deprived of even a shred of human dignity.

The acting was on-point for all the key protagonists. Alia Bhatt, especially, gave a mind-udta-punjab-the-looks-of-alia-bhatt-1blowing performance for a role normally outside her niche. As an actress, she’s come a long way from playing upper-class, narcissistic characters in cookie-cutter movies. I hope she opts for developed, nuanced roles, similar to her character in Udta Punjab, as her career progresses.

The story was astonishing, keeping you at the edge of your seat. However, I felt the first half of the film was stronger than the second half. I also think the trite romantic overtones that blossomed between Sartaj and Preet was nothing but a pointless distraction to the overall plot. I mean I know it’s “Bollywood”, but not every movie needs a romantic side plot. Besides, based on their new ‘working relationship’ as unofficial undercover spies, it would have been more suitable if they remained platonic.

Nevertheless, the film was informative, combining the intensity of ground-breaking immersion journalism with the ferocity of social activism. The movie is a call to action, imploring public officials to hound on the roots of ingrained political corruption fueling the drug trade.

However, there is one fundamental flaw with Udta Punjab. The film accurately indicted the politician’s role, and their unholy bandhan with the police force through bribery. Pop stars, known to propagate the so-called glamour of intoxication, are also equally accused. However, there is one other element which the film ignored.

Why are Punjab’s (and India’s) youth so enamored with the thrill of getting high? It’s easy for us to blame pop stars and celebrities for glorifying drug use. However, the problem is more deep-seated.

What would cause someone like Bali to drown in substance abuse?

Why do people do drugs at all?  To divorce themselves from reality. To indulge themselves in an escapist state of nirvana.

Why? Various reasons. Dysfunctional relationships, low-self esteem, the unbearable pressures of life and general angst.

CaptureThe problem with the screenplay is its disregard of Bali’s perspective. In the movie, he’s nothing more than a cardboard cutout who just stands there dazed in those bloody sunglasses. The film should have taken a glimpse into Bali’s life and highlighted the reasons he’s frantically looking for that next fix. This insight could revolutionize the way India approaches not only its drug policies but also its educational criteria.

Perhaps Indian schools should instruct their students on healthy behavior, sound decision making and effective ways of dealing with stress and academic pressures. With these skills at their disposal, they won’t feel the need to escape from reality. They’ll be equipped to function in the real world.

Although I hope they won’t adopt America’s 1980s-era ‘Just Say No’ campaign!

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I don’t think you could find a better spokesmen for an anti-drug campaign than Bill Cosby! 

If you’re in the mood for a crime thriller with unabashedly political overtones, I’d recommend this movie. It is as educational as it is entertaining. Pankaj Nihalini and his colleague of the Indian censor board should acquainted themselves with reality and realize that just because a movie has excessive swearing and portrays a particular province of India in a less-than-ideal light, doesn’t mean it’s somehow anti-national.

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