Udta Punjab: An Elegy to a broken nation

 

There is a moment in the film where two characters are arguing with each other as to who is the bigger idiot. Both of them claiming to be the bigger one till one points out to the other that lallu and fuddu are not the same. That moment in more ways than one captures the brilliance of the film. Abhishekh Chaubey has proven in the past as to how good he is in saying the heaviest and the most heartbreaking stuff in the most comical ways. So as to completely shock the audience into numbness. Here in this film there are several moments when your hearty laughter stops midway abruptly. Or doesn’t. You see, watching a film like this with audience which goes into multiple orgasms on TV-Serial standard melodramas like “Praktan”, subtlety is a difficult proposition. So for example when the interaction I referred suddenly turned into gut-wrenching outburst (a brilliant piece of acting like many more in the film) the audience in the hall were still laughing and I heard someone comment “ki boka boka bihari bolchey” (she is speaking in stupid bihari).

 

The way it slaps us laughingly with the harsh ironies by juxtaposing polar opposites against each other is what makes this film so powerful. The jail scene interaction between Tommy and his two fans who worship him and got inspired to be druggies by him is chilling. The simple laid back matter of fact way in which they talk of their horrific crime is shocking. It smashes out Tommy. It smashed some of us. And then there were others in the theatre who were laughing even in that scene. The biggest example is obviously the pre-climax. The most heart-wrenching message of loss of innocence comes in that scene. The futility and vulnerability of human life so strongly brought out in the scene. The value of holding onto life brought out and juxtaposed with the sheer wastefulness of the drug addiction. And yet the director injects the sheer comedy of helpless players who don’t know how to handle things. An utterly heartbreaking moment laced with the comic inability of people in it. This playfulness and the plank of tragi-comedy makes the film both sophisticated and also difficult to keep up with for viewers who are used to simpler fare.

 

The most brilliant thing about Udta Punjab apart from the sheer scale and complexity which the maker attempts to pull off and mostly does is the level of subtlety and intelligence with which the story has been told. The more you think back the more you appreciate the achievement of the filmmaker. It tells the whole menace of drugs from the angle of common people who are affected. Not the villains, not the heroes, but the common people. Who are directly or indirectly affected by it. Those who have lost their innocence to it like the characters of Alia and Shahid. And those who still have their innocence or a chance to keep it. Like DIljit and Kareena characters. At other levels it is also the tale of the common man who is too embroiled in the “System” to notice the flood waters rising all around him. Till the day it enters his drawing room. There are two back to back scenes of one of the characters which serve as pre-post demonstration. His actions before realising how far the water has gone up and his reaction post that. This is one of the many moments of ingenuity by the director. We see this every day, every moment. How our mothers and fathers and uncles keep telling us “not to get involved” in order to keep us safe. And yet one day it all sweeps us all and w cannot look away anymore.

Another element of the film which really makes it win is the sheer honesty and transparency of story telling. Once you see the film you can see why SAD are pissing in their pants about this film. The film makes no bones of the administration and its casual involvement in making this drug-terrorism which Pakistan is inflicting on the state a success. In fact the list shown in the film has a parallel in reality which had been prepared by an ex-DIG, submitted to the CM and has got lost since then. And yet in all its moments of “in your face” fact sharing of the drug menace the makers never make it a hero-villain story of man vs the system like so many formula films. The message is loud and clear when Diljit’s character tells Kareena’s- “madamji, the men in Punjab are all lying somewhere in their drug induced coma. I guess its time the women have to stand up and do something”. There is no one who is coming to save Punjab. The average joe and the average jane has to start the fight. And the basic reality as kareena’s character tells is that the war is two fold. The external war against the other country and the system which allows the menace. And the internal one where the sons and daughters have to win against their addiction.

 

A film of this complexity needed its actors to really rise up. And what a great choice of cast! The effortless innocence of Diljit DOssanj has made him a heartthrob. This film shows why. He is effortless as the simple Punjabi munda next door who lives by the book, takes bribe and seeks a better life to fall in the “system”. Till his life comes crashing down by the same substance which is providing him the security of the “system” and extra income. Kareena is earnest and spirited as the crusader. Her character is too straightforward. But she brings in a lot of panache. And makes the most of the scenes which break down her “perfect”ness (as diljit’s character says) and show her fear, softness of heart and vulnerability. However the meatiest roles are of the two losers. The lallu- Alia and phuddu- Shahid. This film is another milestone in Shahid’s career. After Haider, Kaminey etc. He leaves shahid Kapoor on the wayside and what you see in the film is all Tommy Singh the Gabru. His character undergoes immense stress and transformation. His well maintained bubble bursts and he has to cope or die. His struggles, his failures, his over-the-top image and the real self. All of this in all of its complexity is resting on the shoulders of the man previously known as shahid Kapoor- now Tommy Singh. The shock of the film however is Mary Jane- Alia Bhatt. Every frame she is in makes open-mouthed in wonder of what a talent she is proving to be. She is simply brilliant. Her impact on the performance and the film is best experienced and hence I will not speak much on her. The support cast is strong and able. And even the smallest of roles don’t have any spot of black and white. Everyone in this film is grey. Simple people trying to cope.

 

Finally if for nothing else then at least for one reason Udta Punjab is a film we should all be thankful for. At long last the drugs issue in Punjab to the forefront. It is the issue which needs immediate addressal. Before it is too late….

 

Udta Punjab is a very personal film for me. Because my land is Bengal but the land of my beloved is Punjab. And it is the land which has loved me back unconditionally as a puttar, as a brother and so many other designations. It is a land where people can treat you to roti and ghee-shakkar with all their love. When you have landed in the middle of the night to attend the funeral of the person who was their life. It is a land where you can chat with people as if you know them for ages though you have never met them before (similarities with Kolkata here).

 

It is a land where the poetry of sahir, gulzar and so many others came to life for me. I really understood the meaning of “jaadon kin narm dhoop”, “thandi safed chadron mein der tak jaagna”. It is a place where I have run to many times just to relax and clear my head. Sat for hours in the Gurdwaras to experience peace. Be it Taran Taaran,  Nangal or the Golden Temple. The land of Baba Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Manto, Amrita Pritam Shiv Kumar Batalvi camouflaged with hearty laughter and self mockery and a glass of lassi-vassi and a few pakoras. The land which gave the language of love to Bollywood and the country. The land which taught the others how to take life a little less seriously and have a lassi-vassi and chill. The land which for heaven’s sake taught us how to hold a marriage! The land which taught us that there does not need to be any reason to break into a dance. It is the land where for decades young men have laid down their lives to the cause of the country. A country which attacked its holiest place to quench the bloodlust of a family.

 

It is the same land which today is losing a generation to the drug-terrorism of Pakistan, supported by its greedy politicians. Who will save the jewel in India’s crown? Who will be the Sartaj Singh and Dr. Preet who will stand up against the system? Who will save the Pinkies and Tommy Singhs?

 

Perhaps the words of the great Shiv Kumar Batalvi is used in the movie just to convey this anguish and hopelessness:

Ikk kudi jida naam mohabbat
Gum hai, gum hai, gum hai
O saad muraadi, sohni phabbat
Gum hai, gum hai, gum hai
Gum hai, gum hai, gum hai

The innocence, the beauty, the soul is lost. Who will find it again for us?

The film ends in a somewhat positive note. The maker gives us an escapist ending. Where ultimately the good guys do win. In a way. The maker gives us a positive ending because he can. The reality of the state is just too depressing and morbid. There has to be some hope. This escapism gives hope. The maker has done his job. The artist has done what he could. Now its up to the rest of us…

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Talking of the two best of 2012; Why i loved GOW more

I had seen shanghai with huge expectations. In fact expectation is the wrong word. It was a decided reaction. I had gone to the cinema hall expecting to be in love with the movie. It was made by one of the foremost directors of our times. It had my favourite bengali star in a special role. It was also adapted from a book whose original adaptation had left me floored. There was nothing that could go wrong with shanghai. The film started with all the anticipation and after the mandatory 100 minutes in the hall my smile had not left. I was ranting how great the movie was- and truly even now I would say it was one of the best of the year. However somewhere deep inside there was a churning – an effort to assimilate the reasons for the film being so great.

Truly there was a lot to love about shanghai.In fact there was everything to love about Shanghai. Prosenjit’s performance as the shaded activist- brilliant. extremely commendable performances from Abhay Deol and my favourite crush- Kalki Koechlin. But the show stealer- pure brilliance from Emran Hashmi. He had taken the wind out of everyone by his 440volt performance as the lecherous, stupid, dirty do-gooder. And what a support cast! supriya pathak showed her class in a single scene. Farouque sheikh the aged scotch. And then there was the story. Powerful, smart, taut and dead serious as a thriller. Less as a thriller and more as a commentary. As the weeks passed on i kept having the tinge of that smile of satisfaction. However the churn inside did not go away.

What really did not work with shanghai?

Shanghai tells the story of an imaginary land. somewhere in north india. presumably. The fulcrum of the movie revolves around a guy who is a principled activist and an opportunist at the same time. With women and with other things in life. It was the story of his death and those people around whom his death revolved. His character sketch was such a relief from the jeetendra days. But was it unexpected or was it refreshing as a concept?… No i guess. the fact that prosenjit put in his charm and brilliance in it was definitely a joy. But it was almost expected that he will be a principalled activist at one level and also as a human he would have his frailties. So the question was by showing his weakness for women was was really being achieved. Yes, we were seeing a believable character. But was that enough? Or for that matter why did Kalki’s charater’s father have to be shamed for her to be on the edge? Was’nt it a bit too straight-forward and expected? Thus also boring?

The clear problem with shanghai was its lack of effortlessness in terms of credibility. Dont get me wrong. It is a very well made smart movie. But that smartness does not seem to naturally blend into the tapestry. Its smartness is worn on its sleeve. The scene where the politicians keep repeating “Jai Pragati” the same is clearly underlined. In reality no Party will be calling itself Pragati and the whole smirk at “development at the cost of what” is too expected and superficial. For a serious film it needed to be more credible and subtle about its insight and message. The other issue with the film starts here. It is with the basic premise of taking up an un-named state. The departure from reality for the movie starts exactly here. Yes a lot of what happens in the movie happens in real life. But where in real life? This is a country where every 100km civilisation changes. And for exactly the same reason the reality of a story needs to be rooted to the region no matter how universal its message is. The script for Kahani will not work in a setting of Delhi where the police officer will be uttering 50 MC-BCs and leching away at the heroine. Similarly the Khosla Ka script will not work in Kolkata as here the land mafia will behave in completely different way and will be much more party-politics centred. And besides the city of Delhi has the concept of con ingrained in it. 

So the core issue i have with shanghai starts with the fact the we do not which which india it is showcasing. And so we cannot really relate to the behaviour of the protagonists. The opposition leader behaves like a maharastrian hardline politician. The chief minister is like some reincarnation of the older Gandhi (brilliant cameo by Madam Pathak). Emraan Hashmi’s character is confused between a Delhiite/ a Rajasthani immigrant/ a small city bimbo. AGain let me state that the performance is brilliant. but the character does not seem to be rooted anywhere. If you feel i am going tangent then compare him to the Chunni in DevD or Bangali in Oye Lucky… Or Khurana in Khosla… All the other characters mentioned are clearly identifiable with their teritory. Apart from the fact that these were really well written and memorable characters. However I simply cannot clearly place Emraan’s Jogi. All i can say is that he is a small town bumpkin.

The same comes with the overall setting of the film. the location. How its used. It simply is pushed to the background and to the level of being irrelevant. That in itself is ok. But when you are making a film where location and culture is going to play such a big role you cannot just push it to the background can you? That is where the credibility of the film weakens to a large extent. It almost seems not rooted in real people or situations. Something like that worked in Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai as there he was deliberately trying to mirror our times through a fable set in medeival times. But here the director is telling a realistic story in our times. Its not a fable or a fantasy.

In conrtast to all this i saw the GOW series. i had gone with mixed expectations from a gang war movie. The expectaiton was mixed primarily as a gang war movie had been done to death by various directors across the world. Including bollywood. I went for the film primarily because of the director. However here i found exactly what i was missing in shanghai. Here the director was not trying to do anything other than tell the tale. He was telling a simple tale of revenge in a land. The land and the personality of that land did the rest of the work. Be it the APu trilogy or the samurai series of Kurosawa or more recently the movies like In the mood for love, Old Boy, Farewell My Concubine etc etc. They have also been ingrained in the society and the culture where they have been made. Very strongly so. That is also what was so strongly refreshing about the movie GOW. The fact that it was so strongly rooted in the society and the time where it was telling the story. It used Bollywood and obsession for Bollywood brilliantly to showcase time, Fashion aspirations of small town youth through the last 70-80 years. also the location. This film would not have worked in karnataka or maharastra. It was the story of dhanbad. It would not have worked with the wagon breakers of bengal also. The core of the movie had that personality which was extremely rooted to the terrain of dhanbad. The people, The land and the economy.

The biggest triumphs of GOW were its simplicity and its core involvement of the roots of the story. That is exactly where for me Shanghai failed. It was a “smart” movie. A very well made movie. But it slipped away in its credibility. It failed to affect. As it was posing. Not being.

Cut me down if you want to but i saw similar trend in LSD. Again an extremely smart movie. Done on a shoestring. But a movie taking itself too seriously and too self conscious in my opinion. Again. Do not get me wrong. We are not talking mediocrity here. We are talking of two of the best directors of present indian film industry. LSD was for me bordering on gimmicky. I hope it was for a very good reason. The use of non-actors. The mode of shooting everything had that thing of not “being” but “pretending” to be in it. It was not reality infolding but a make believe. For the kind of cinema Diwakar makes this was not correct.

However the moment you move backwards from LSD to Oye Lucky and Khosla, the scenario changes. When he is telling the stroy of the delhiite he is much more rooted. Much more knowledgable about the environment. In fact that alone more than anything else gives such high level of credibilty to these movies. You feel lucky and the khoslas in you. If you have been in delhi or even met a delhiite you know what those situations are about. You can relate to those situations so strongly. Thats why those films work. And work so damn well. Actually diwakar knows delhi. He is a delhi boy. But as a filmmaker he also needs to “know” the other cities and localities for him to make consistently credible cinema. For him credibilty and hundred percent credibility is very important. He is no karan johar.

Anurag Kashyap knows his environment. He pushed the screen-writer of Gulaal to root his story in Rajasthan. FOr that he spent months in Rajasthan understanding the terrain, the social realities, the culture. The rough and dry Gulaal could not have found a better setting than the sands of Rajasthan with the THakurs who historically spilled blood effortlesly for honour. His DevD showcased the raw sexuality of an young girl through the sunflower fields of punjab. A bombay girl would have been smarter. A bengali village girl less aggressive. A Bengali DevD would never have worked. 21st century bengali guy would perhpas moved on effortlessly. He thinks from his brain not his heart or his you-know-what. Also he would lack the balls to subject himself to so much debauchery and degradation. In the second part the setting quickly moves to Delhi Paharganj as the debauchery of the punjab guy needed Paharganj and its sleaze. Anyone who has lived in delhi will not bat an eyelid when you show him a tap-dancing performance in a hidden bar behind a shutter.

2012 was an year which needs to be remembered in Indian cinema. It saw some of the best films of recent times being released. SHanghai and GOW would be at the top of that list. In fact GOW was at the top of the list in the best international cinema as reported by Hollywood Reporter. The fact that finally after the emptiness of the late eighties, nineties and good part of 2000 we are finally seeing some quality being reinjected into indian cinema is largely thanks to AK and DB. They are truly the flag bearers of quality cinema in this country. However in the last few outings of Diwakar i am a tinge concerned about his lack of investment in the premise and the roots of his stories. Because the credibility of a story comes from its roots. ALso he needs to inject genuineness into his tales. For the kind of cinema he makes he needs to be very conscious of this. For the sake of indian cinema…..