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…