Udta Punjab gets off to a flying start…literally. Somewhere on the Punjab-Pakistan border, we see a discus thrower flex, then fling a package of heroin across a barbed fence. It lands in a field in Punjab where a Bihari migrant worker (Alia Bhatt) steals it, sparking off a chain of events that eventually links the four protagonists.
The film is hard-hitting and uncomfortable to watch, and mixes dark humor to a tale about the dirty drug and political nexus in Punjab. It becomes evident early on that the story and the characters are rooted in reality: there’s the politician who runs an anti-drug campaign yet is a secret manufacturer and supplier; the cops who turn the other way for a price; junkies who will give anything for another fix; and the coked-out rockstar who makes drugs sound sexy to millions of hooked youngsters. For once, our cinema reflects these ugly truths.
Director Abhishek Chaubey has a slick storytelling voice, but there are more than a few inconsistencies. Plus, the film is just too damn long. It’s a pity because Udta Punjab has an edgy energy. The film is trippy, and yet it’s staunchly anti-drugs, demonstrating just how destructive addiction can be.
That point is illustrated well through the character of Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor), a London-returned rocker modeled closely on Bollywood sensation Yo Yo Honey Singh. Tommy is routinely drugged out of his mind, and composes songs peppered with words like ‘coke’ and ‘cock’.
We’re also introduced to the other key players – Alia Bhatt, in the role of the nameless Bihari girl who gets mixed up with nasty drug dealers; and Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh), a corrupt cop who’s happy to take a cut from the local drug business until he sees how it ruins his addict brother. Sartaj is inspired to expose the nexus between a political bigwig and the drug trade by doctor and activist Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor).
What gets in the way of the film’s confident narrative is the occasionally sketchy characterization and script contrivances. A lengthy sequence in which Preet and Sartaj sleuth around in a drug manufacturing unit feels out of place here, not to mention out of character for a medical practitioner. Luckily, Amit Trivedi’s dynamite score distracts you when the screenplay sags.
The film is also elevated by its terrific performances, especially from Alia Bhatt, who pours desperation, innocence and ultimately strength into her character. She blows you away with her acting. The surprise package is Punjabi star Diljit Dosanjh, who has undeniable presence, and a sincerity that makes you root for his character. In addition, he brings an authenticity to the film. The tentative chemistry he shares with Kareena Kapoor is particularly charming, and it’s a sheer joy to watch the actress sink her teeth into a role that does justice to her talent. It’s not a showy part, but Kareena brings Preet to life with her easy, natural performance.
Shahid Kapoor, meanwhile, although perfectly cast as the self-absorbed, swaggering rockstar, plays the part a little too on-the-nose. He plays Tommy for laughs mostly, and nails those bits. But you wish he’d give us a deeper sense of the emptiness gnawing away at his insides. Nevertheless, Tommy and his entourage, including a terrific Satish Kaushik as his manager-uncle, keep the absurd humor coming. A scene in which his hangers-on forget to bring him his Diet Coke is laugh-out-loud hilarious.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab. The censor furore dragged it into controversy for the wrong reasons, but I recommend that you watch it for the right ones. This is uncompromised cinema – the film has its highs and lows, but delivers a solid kick.