Udta Punjab (Punjab Flying High) is not an easy film to watch. It will make you squirm in your seat as you follow the bold, expletive-ridden narrative that charts the bleak goings-on in a state slowly being swallowed whole by a severe drug problem.
This is a Punjab that is far removed from the lush fields depicted in regular Bollywood movies, where lovers meet and sing songs. Its people are nothing like the happy, good-humoured men and women we’ve come to expect from popular cinema. In Abhishek Chaubey’s Punjab, drug deliveries are made in the fields in the dead of the night, the police turn a blind eye to the growing menace, and a whole generation is in peril due to unchecked substance abuse and addiction. This grim Punjab will not make you want to break into bhangra, it’ll make you want to go out and fight for better governance, which explains why its controversial release, just as the state gears up for elections early next year, is a worrisome matter for the state’s current government.
The film follows the lives of four people caught up in the various threads of narco-politics — drug-addled rock star Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor), a Bihari field worker (Alia Bhatt), police officer Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) and doctor Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan).
Tommy is a young singing sensation with a massive fan following, a huge ego and an equally big drug problem that is rapidly destroying his creativity. He hasn’t been able to record a decent track in a long time and the fear of being “over” is driving him deeper into the arms of drug abuse. Bhatt plays an unnamed, impoverished field worker from Bihar who escapes to Punjab in search of a better life and chances upon a heroin delivery. She thinks it’s going to be her ticket out of poverty, but things go awry and she ends up getting raped and in captivity. Sartaj is a police officer who is happy to toe his seniors’ line and routinely allows safe passage to truck-fulls of drugs, until the day he sees his own little brother writhing in hospital after a near-fatal overdose. Preet is a young doctor who is trying her hardest to save the youth of Punjab.
It’s the cast that makes Udta Punjab what it is. While the narrative is jarring and choppy is some places, the lead actors more than make up for it. Kapoor’s portrayal of a volatile and always-high rock star is spot on. Punjabi star Dosanjh charms you with his innocence even while he stands at the centre of the corruption, simply because he really doesn’t know any better. Kapoor Khan’s earnest and principled Preet leaves you frustrated for more of her underwritten character. But it is Bhatt who truly steals the show with her chilling portrayal of a young woman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her Bihari accent is flawless, and the scene where she screams out the terrible story of her life at a whining Tommy will give you goose bumps.
In the end, the high point of Udta Punjab is that it offers a hard-hitting, much-needed reality check that leaves you feeling incredibly low. Watch it, because it probably is the most important film to come out of Bollywood this year.