Thursday, June 23, 2016

‘Udta Punjab’ review: Controversial film takes uneven flight

Alia Bhat shines in a film that suffers from an inconsistent tone and is in many ways, a missed opportunity.

-Rutwij Nakhwa

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Poetic justice seems to be at effect as a film that the CBFC sought to unjustly butcher, has gained crores worth of free media coverage thanks to them. Despite the leak of the censor copy of the film online, it’s minted good numbers at the box office. If only, it had also lived up to the excitement it had generated.

The film opens to two men in a dark field; one of them wearing a track jacket with a Pakistan logo on it (because location subtitles are clearly out-of-fashion). He proceeds to shot-put a bag of drugs across the border and we are propelled into the film.

A montage depicts how far down the drug culture has seeped into the trenches of Punjabi society; it’s done well, but typical of every drug-crime-thriller movie, at times done much better. The film goes on to establish the complicity of the authorities, including the police and we meet the pop-culture flag bearer of this decadence in Tommy Singh a.k.a. ‘The Gabru’ played by Shahid Kapoor.

Declining taste in music seems to be a side-effect of drug use, as we see Tommy record a song with just variations of two words: ‘Coke-Cock-Cock-Coke’. This being one of his simpler compositions, all of which the state’s high-flying youth lap up. But this exaggeration is not without purpose; later in the film, in prison, two young boys who hero-worship him, start singing one of his songs and confess to seeing his face the first time they got high. An older, disgruntled inmate calls them out for having the audacity of singing songs after just having murdered their mother. They are unfazed by his retort, their justification: she refused to give us money for drugs; we had to kill her. In their heads it makes complete sense; it is reflective of the moral bankruptcy that all drug addicts, including Tommy are complicit in. 


We also get introduced to the four main characters we are supposed to care about. Tommy is one; Alia plays the other and is referred to as ‘Pagli’ (birdbrain). She is a school level hockey player who was forced into agricultural labour after her father’s death. It is she who finds the shot-putted pack of drugs and decides to sell it in a bid to change her fortunes. Obviously nothing goes according to plan in this drug infested cinema-scape and she finds herself in a lot more trouble than she had bargained for, especially with the 3 crore worth drug bag in her hand. Next up is Sartaj, a corrupt cop who has a change of heart after his own brother ODs and he meets his exceptionally pretty doctor-activist saviour. Diljit Dosanjh plays Sartaj and is reason enough for all of Punjab to come watch the film, while Kareena plays the doctor.  

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All are actors with great commercial value, but sadly, that is all they bring to the film. Except for Alia, who seems to have delivered a career best. For the first time she transcends herself and all we see is the scrawny Bihar girl, accent and all — a welcome relief from hearing her peculiar baby-voice on screen. But an even greater relief is the ease with which she steps into this very difficult character and essays it with a melancholic authenticity.
Shahid plays a shade of the deranged character he played in ‘Haider’, but this time bears only a facsimile of the brilliance of that performance. Heartthrob Dosanjh’s emotional range fluctuates between dumfounded cuteness to unabashed anger; nothing in between. Kareena sticks out like a sore thumb, especially with Alia there to call out the inadequacies in her acting.

The first half is dark and gritty, exposing the decadent landscape of Punjab; summed up best by an old tea-vendor in the film “Dharti banjar, log kanjar” (The land is arid and people degenerate). The film shifts between parallel storylines of the four characters with a foreboding sense that they will merge. But it doesn’t focus long enough on any and character development suffers. Especially for Tommy’s, which Shahid is expected to drive entirely on his charm; a big ask even for the likes of him.
Editing through visual bridges in certain scenes is stylishly done, especially in one where Alia, in a psychedelic vision, falls through the sky into the sea and swims towards a light, which dissolves into a torchlight in Shahid’s hand.

But the direction feels uneven and all over the place and it reflects in the cinematography and soundscape. A story of this magnitude needs a strong, guiding hand to see it through and its absence here is glaring, especially considering Abhishek Chaubey’s previous successful turns in ‘Ishqiya’ and ‘Dedh Ishqia’. It shows more in the second half of the film, when the tonal inconsistencies are even more apparent as you find yourself laughing at scenes that are in fact tragic and ill-timed, ill-placed jokes fall flat.

Dosanjh and Kareena embark on a contrived investigation to expose the drug cartel. As we near the end, Tommy’s character almost parodies himself as he is cured of drug addiction by his infatuation with ‘Pagli’ and an obsession of single-handedly rescuing her. It almost feels like the film goes out of it’s way to make itself commercial, as we sit through a beautiful but misfitting, romantic song that comes out of nowhere. Last month’s Marathi blockbuster ‘Sairat’ went from commercial to artsy between the halves, this one does the exact opposite. 


Before we ultimately collapse into a Tarantino style shootout which plays out to an odd cheery music, followed up with a regular Bollywood style happy ending, the film reaches its high point when Bhat’s character murders one of her captors. We see her in a mid-close up, repeatedly stabbing the man. Her face bears no marks of the desolation inside, as her arm frantically moves up and down in a motion symbolic of the barbarous treatment she has been subjected to, mentioned otherwise only in dialogue.

Despite its shortcomings, one thing the film does successfully, is bring out a strong anti-drug sentiment, so the claims of the CBFC of it promoting drugs are quite ridiculous. We witness the horrors drugs can wreak on the human condition, as the film almost channels the soul-crushing brilliance of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Requiem for a dream’; the key-word here, sadly, being “almost”.

‘Udta Punjab’ just about falls short of soaring.

 Rutwij Nakhwa, studying for his Bachelor's in Mass Media at St Xavier's College, Mumbai, is working as an                                    intern with Uma da Cunha and her quarterly magazine 'Film India Worldwide'


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