Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab is littered with standout scenes, but none matches the sledgehammer impact of the climax.
Sudden, quick on the draw and stunningly to the point, it brings the curtains down on a profane, dystopic vision of a state that was once India’s bread basket but is today burdened with a whole slew of problems, not the least of which are the horrific repercussions of narco-terror.
Chaubey tells his powerful, sinewy story with great dramatic flair, but he never ventures too far away from the harsh reality of the nexus between the drug kingpins and the state’s politicians.
In one scene, a lawman mockingly describes the current situation as Green Revolution Part Two, drawing attention to the link between the drug menace and Punjab’s worsening agrarian crisis.
If the film’s keen sense of the times that we live in is impressive, the way it etches out and develops the key characters in the drama is no less commendable.
Three of the film’s four principal characters are utterly imperfect, but they are, pretty much like Punjab itself, not beyond redemption.
When self-realization kicks in, they are all ready to give redemption a shot.
It is their journey from gloom to hope that Udta Punjab tracks without the slightest concession to overt sentimentality.
What it achieves in the process is real emotional traction. As the three flawed figures – a wayward pop singer, a poor farm hand done in by desperation and a cop uneasy with the compromises he makes – fight to rise above the despair surrounding them, they emerge as people worth rooting for.
At two-and-a-half hours, Udta Punjab is an overlong film, but almost every scene, jointly written by Sudip Sharma and director Abhishek Chaubey, demands attention and propels the story forward.
The dialogues, mostly in Punjabi (written by Sudip Sharma), are earthy and rooted in the soil, which augments the authenticity of the story and the characters that people it.
Expletives fly thick and fast as the action shifts from the raucous milieu of a coke-snorting Punjabi crooner (whose songs are peppered with four-letter words) to the world of corrupt cops (who let drug consignments be driven in and out of the state) to the depths of the difficult life of a Bihari migrant (who sinks into a spiral of drugs and sexual exploitation).
With an intelligent combination of hardboiled cynicism and broad touches of trippy black humour, the film brings alive a benighted universe where life has lost its way in a drug-induced haze.
The film invokes Punjab’s great romantic poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi to accentuate the poignancy of the situation.
The rockstar-protagonist sings of “a girl whose name is love and who is lost” to drive home the evaporation of charm and beauty from the lives of the youth.
In the first 40 minutes of its second half, Udta Punjab is literally trapped in darkness. Director of photography Rajeev Ravi lenses the night-time scenes with great skill, setting up the eventual opening out into a burst of brightness accompanied by an eruption of cathartic violence.
Chaubey’s third venture underscores, like Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya did, the originality of his directorial voice.
He imparts heady propulsion to a grim theme and constructs an unflinching narrative that does not shy from calling out the forces responsible for Punjab’s undeserved plight.
Udta Punjab takes flight without wasting a second – from the very moment the title appears on a flying heroin pouch hurled from across the border by a discus thrower.
It cruises along at an even pace right until the crackling climax, which is shockingly bloody but remarkably effective.
Chaubey’s robust directorial style, which enmeshes sharp characterization with evocative use of music (composer Amit Trivedi is in fine fettle here), keeps the tale on the boil even during the occasional stretches where it teeters on the edge of over-articulation.
A pop star Tommy Singh, a nameless Bihari migrant girl, a cynical policeman Sartaj Singh and a doctor who runs a de-addiction centre (Kareena Kapoor Khan) are thrown into dangerous disarray in a climate vitiated by the easy availability of drugs.
Two metaphors – one delivered in the form of a physical prop, the other as a visual refrain – define the plight of the pop star-hero and the girl who gives him a purpose in life.
As the film hurtles towards its climax, we see the male protagonist in winged shoes, but limping.
On the other hand, a tourism hoarding exhorting people to “go Goa” is the only thing that the entrapped girl can see from the room where she is held captive.
Both have the will but are severely held back by their circumstances, which is, by extension, a commentary on the current state of the state of Punjab itself.
The character that overshadows everyone else in Udta Punjab is that of the poor farm worker played with intensity and passion by Bhatt.
The girl’s misfortune falls literally from the sky in the form of a heroin packet. Greed gets the better of her and she ends up in a hell-hole.
It is ironic that the other female part written for Udta Punjab is the weakest of the quartet of pivotal characters.
Played by Kareena Kapoor Khan, Dr. Preeti Sahani, whose concerted war on drugs helps the conflicted policeman out of a personal crisis, is an embodiment of righteousness. She is too perfect to be true.
The director extracts solid performances from his two male actors. Shahid Kapoor, with his toned torso heavily tattooed, does full justice to the mercurial Tejinder Singh alias Tommy Singh of Phagwara, plunging headlong into the gleeful but ill-advised mayhem he represents.
Diljit Dosanjh, in his first role in a Hindi film, plays the cop who decides to break free from the system when his own brother Balli (Prabhjyot Singh) nearly dies on him due to a drug overdose.
Dosanjh does not put a foot wrong, playing his role with restraint. He also lends his singing voice to the film’s defining musical piece – a Batalvi poem set to lilting music by Amit Trivedi.
But it is Alia, who despite the battering that fate has reserved for her, never loses her appetite for a fight. The petite actress is the film’s towering totem.
The liberal use of cuss words may be too grating for some ears. Udta Punjab is not family entertainment, but it is an undeniably magnificent – and purposeful – commercial Hindi film. Do not miss it.