In the dark of the night, a scooter splutters along a bumpy road. It stops and three men get off. One wears a sports jersey with ‘Pakistan’ printed on it and swivels his arms before flinging a packet across a barbed wire fence. That packet lands in a field in India’s Punjab and sets into motion events that form the crux of Abhishek Chaubey‘s “Udta Punjab“.
In Chaubey’s film, it would seem such packets are raining down all over the state. This is not the Punjab that Bollywood has portrayed over the years — the land of yellow mustard fields, energetic dances and lively weddings. In this avatar, Punjab is engulfed in a drug-induced stupor. Teenagers slump around abandoned houses, surrounded by syringes and white paper. Huge consignments of illegal substances make their way around the state with the complicit approval of a corrupt police force, while politicians distribute deadly drug cocktails as election favours.
Chaubey and co-writer Sudip Sharma are inspired by the narrative style in Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic“, and choose to highlight the rather prickly issue through four characters. Alia Bhattplays a Bihari migrant worker who finds the packet (mentioned above) in a field where she works for a pittance. She wants to sell it, hoping the money will help her escape her miserable existence. Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is a singer with the petulance and brains of a six-year-old. His songs and his life seem to be driven by drugs, before a sobering experience sets him on the path to redemption.
Diljit Dosanjh plays a police officer who thinks nothing of making money from the drug trade, blind to the fact that his younger brother is an addict. Preet Sahani (Kareena Kapoor Khan), a doctor who runs a rehabilitation clinic, makes him see the light and together they set off on a mission to find those guilty of drug trafficking.
At 148 minutes and four character tracks to follow, the screenplay is overcrowded and resorts to contrivances in an attempt to resolve some issues. “Udta Punjab” is at its heart a rather simplistic tale that doesn’t really have the time to delve into socio-economic factors that led to this crisis in the northern state. If this film had lesser actors, it would have been a whole other story.
It is to the credit of the four actors and the ensemble cast that “Udta Punjab” is mostly a triumph. Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt deliver the performances of a lifetime. Bhatt sheds her skin to emerge as a freckled, troubled migrant girl desperate for a way out. Kapoor turns Tommy Singh into a tragi-comic character who is a “fuddu” (loser) masquerading as a macho, adrenaline-fuelled rock star. Dosanj and Khan are equally proficient and share an easy chemistry that makes their scenes a pleasure to watch.
For all the controversy surrounding this film and its print being leaked two days before release, the main talking point about “Udta Punjab” should be that it is, by far, one of the best-acted Bollywood films in the past few years. That alone is worth the price of your ticket.