Early in Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab, there is a green board on the road welcoming the travellers to Punjab. The board describes Punjab as the land of five rivers. The name Punjab is derived from two Persian words—panj (five) and ab (water)—meaning the land of five rivers, given so due to the five rivers that flow through the state, that eventually go and meet the Indus river. Udta Punjab is also a story of five characters, namely Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor), Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh), Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor), Mary Jane (Alia Bhatt), with the fifth character in the film being drugs. Like the rivers, the stories of all these characters merge through the film eventually becoming one in the climax. In Abhishek Chaubey's earlier films, Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya, the place, Gorakhpur and Lucknow, was a character in itself, and both films were black comedies. In contrast, Udta Punjab inhabits a much darker world that is not comic, but rather a world that is so realistic, which is deeply tragic. The film focuses on the menace of drug addiction that has overtaken the state of Punjab, particularly in its youth, in the last few years. It is the story of a land that is going through another Green Revolution Part Two, as one character remarks; the green being hinted towards the informal name of a popular psychotropic substance.
At one point, Preet says that the war on drugs is comprised of two battles. One against the system. The system is accurately described in the film as vicious narco-politics, in which the entire state machinery, including the legislature and the executive, has colluded to use drugs to gain private profit, and political power. The police officer explains to Sartaj, that there is a system and everyone has to follow it. This system is extremely powerful and has all the resources at its disposal to crush any rebellion. Even the film calls the members of legislative assembly (MLAs) engaged in drug activity as pehalwaan—strongman. In another such touch, these MLAs belong to a nameless party that has purple flags as purple is, typically, the color associated with drugs, which is also seen in the colors of the film's posters. Sartaj also hints at another part of this system—the activisim-for-profit industry—where some activists have been part of this system just to become famous in the media and gain popularity, rather than fight it. Later, he tells Preet that there is a difference in making a change from being inside the system and making noise from the outside. When Preet actually fought the system, the system crushed her. The only person in the film who never took drugs, and was called 'dignity' in the sea of dirt all around, is the one who gets killed just before the night when she is about to expose this system. In contrast, the other three characters, certainly more culpable in the eyes of law than Preet, escape this brutal predicament, and get a second chance at redemption.
The second and the more difficult battle is the one where the addicts are fighting with their own self. This is the battle that requires immense strength and willpower, and the ability to not give in to temptation of the urge of taking drugs, and also to not give in to the temptation of the wrong path. These characters are self-aware of their flaws. All through the film, the characters have internal conversations with themselves through their images. Early in the film, when the police comes to arrest Tommy, he is in the toilet, and then, he sees his own face in the commode of the toilet (Trainspotting reference) and talks to his image about who is the real Gabru. At a later point, he says that he is running away from himself, and calls himself a fuddu. When he is off the drugs, his cousin gives him drugs for inspiration. Initially, he throws them away, but then, gives in to his urge and takes them, and goes to meet the crowd.
Mary Jane finds a drug packet in the fields, and she thinks she can make enough money out of it to get her achcha time. She gives in to the temptation of easy money, and in the process, she gets trapped in the world out of which there is no easy escape. In one scene, she is getting dressed and sees herself in the mirror, perhaps, thinking that her good days will come soon. When she realizes what a big mistake she has committed after the goons start following her, she slaps her self for giving into this temptation. Later, she calls herself a lallu. When she is kidnapped for the second time, she does not give into the urge of drugs. She uses her immense willpower to kick her habit. If Preet was dignity, then, Mary Jane was strength. Interestingly, it is only the women characters who displayed such characteritstics. While we see the family and the support system of the Tommy and Sartaj and other men, we do not see any family or support system for these women, and both of them have this inner strength of character. Mary Jane even fights the goons all alone while Tommy lies helpless when they beat him.
At another instance, Sartaj tells Preet that after helping her find the people involved in this system, when he will look himself in the mirror, he will feel less ashamed of himself. Although Sartaj never intentionally took drugs, he gave into the temptation of easy money, turning a blind eye to the activities that were directly under his control. There is a scene in the film when the policeman shows a pciture of Mary Jane to Sartaj, and he asks her if he wants to sleep with her. Even that scene gave an indication that in the past, he might have perhaps slept with other women, giving into some other temptation. In the earlier moments of the film, he resold captured drug to someone else for big bucks. He also realizes his earlier mistakes, and did not take out his own name from Preet's report. Thus, he is also fighting this inner battle of having to look himself into the eye. Later, even Balli looks himself in the mirror just before he plans to escape and stabs Preet, as if he is also fighting this inner battle. When the film ends, the song Hass Nach Le plays and there are some lines in it, "Ho khud se rubaru, mann darpan tak le tu, gall panne bann le tu, har sheh mein Allah hu," meaning have a face to face conversation with yourself, and look at the mirror inside you. The last time that I remember such a call was given to have a conversation and look deep inside was in Delhi-6 when a character used to show mirror to people, and the film ended with the credits of the characters looking at their human identity, and not at their religious identity. Zarre zarre me usi ka noor hai, jhaank khud me woh na tujhse door hai, ishq hai usse to sab se ishq kar.
The combination of drugs and music stars has been done before in Hindi films. The musical star always gets addicted to them, and this was seen in 7 Khoon Maaf, London Dreams, and Aashiqui 2. Imtiaz Ali's fabulous Rockstar delved deeper into the psyche of the musical star. At one point, Jordan says to Heer, "Tujhe samajh nahi aaya, yeh kuch aur hai jo tujhe aur mujhe saath la raha hai, reh nahi na paaye alag, main aaj itni badi hasti hun, star hun main, itne saare paise hain mere paas, main famous hun, par andar sirf pata hai jalan hai mere andar, bechaini hai, main sirf tere saath hi set hun yaar, itni si baat hai, aur tu bhi vahi, mere saath nahi hoti to koi jaan leva bimaari ho jati hai tujhe, khoon banna band ho jata hai tera." After they stay together for sometime, Heer starts getting better. The doctor even calls it a miracle. Jordan, unlike a conventional rockstar, does not take any drugs and alcohol. He just pretends that he drinks by sprinkling alcohol on his clothes. Love is a drug for both of them. She starts getting cured of her disease by his love; and he is not addicted to any psychotropic substance, but Heer is his drug that gives him a high and cures him of his jalan. She is his inspiration for his music. In an earlier scene, Khatana Bhai had told Jordan, "Toote hue dil se hi sangeet nikalta hai." He makes music when his heart is broken. The relationship of Khatana Bhai and Jordan is like that of Tommy and his manager uncle who helped him when no one did. There is a similar motif in Udta Punjab, with regards to Tommy and Mary Jane. He is addicted to drugs. Once he leaves drugs, he cannot make music because drugs was his inspiration. At one point, his crew member had suggested that he could do with some inspiration (drugs) when Tommy was trying to create a new song. Later, when he meets Mary Jane, he feels inspired and he said that he made a musical tune after ages, and he says he does not feel like taking cocaine. Like Heer was for Jordan, Mary Jane is for Tommy. She is his drug. In fact, on doing a search for Mary Jane on the internet, the results will show that Mary Jane is a popular term for marijuana. In a later scene, one of the abusers of Mary Jane also makes this same point when he tells her that just by touching him, she can get him high.
The character of Tommy is eerily similar to Yo Yo Honey Singh. Tommy goes to jail, where he meets some of his fans, and he realizes the monster he has created by glorifying the drug culture in his songs. He sees two boys who killed their own mother because she was not paying them money for drugs. His fans say that they want to be like him. In the heat of the moment, Tommy shoots at his father-like uncle who helped him when no one else was there for him. At one point, there is even a picture of Kurt Cobain in his room. The legendary singer of Nirvana, Cobain struggled with heroin addiction, chronic health problems and depression during the last years of his life. He had difficulty coping with his fame and public image, and he killed himself at the age of twenty-seven. Tommy goes through the same withdrawal syndrome about the celebrity culture; at one point, he even asks Mary Jane to commit suicide together. But she saves him and gave him a new lease of life, literally and metaphorically.
At one point in the film, when Mary Jane is trying to escape from the house of her kidnappers, she walks down the stairs, and the tube light is constanstly flickering in the background. Immedialtely after this scene, the screenplays shifts to Preet and Sartaj in the drug factory, and there again the tube light starts flickering. Early in the film, when they take Balli to the hospital, the red bulb starts flickering. The film abounds with such visual linkages among the different narratives, perhaps, as a sign of the underlying connection between them. When Mary Jane calculates the amount of money she can get by selling drugs, she is surprised, and immediately, in the next scene, Tommy has the same expression on his face. When she is hallucinating and swims towards light, Tommy takes out his face from water and he is wearing a hat with a white light on it as if she was swimming towards him. When she falls asleep in the house, the shot cuts to Tommy sleeping in the truck. In another pattern, the first time, we see Sartaj, he is peeing. Initially, it also appears that Mary Jane is answering the call of nature in the field when she gets the drug packet. Later, Tommy pees in front of the entre stage, and he spoke to his own self in the toilet. The other repeating gag is that of a dog. When Mary Jane asks Tommy his name, he says, "Tommy," and she replies, "Kutta?" Earlier, when the policeman visits Mary Jane, he asks her kidnapper, if she bites, and he replies that she is trained.
There is a kind of another linkage when characters keep invoking some kind of a family relationship. When Mary Jane is caught, the head of the clan, Veerji, calls the original drug dealer who was supposed to get the packet, and asks his minions to put him in front of Jackie Chan but not to kill him. Whn Sartaj and Preet go in search of Virendra Singh, Sartaj says he remembers a family relationship of Virendra Singh. When Balli kills Preet, Jujhar Singh tells him to not to worry as he is there to save him. Sartaj wants to take care of Balli because his father left him with him. Even Tayya Ji keeps reminding Tommy that he raised him, and helped his sister get married. The irony is they invoke these familial relationships, but have no regard for the universal brotherhood. Puri nasal kharab di toh theek tha, jab bhai pe baat aa gayi toh.
There is also some kind of representation of flying. The tattoo on Tommy's body is that of wings of a bird. His shoes appear to have wings. Likewise, in the inital moments, Mary Jane is shown in a truck that has a bird on it. After sometime, when she gets kidnapped, she is trapped in a house that has the same bird (something that appears to be like an eagle) on its mast. It is shown quite prominently as if that refers to some kind of motif on flying or getting a high. In the fabulous opening sequence, there is a shot of trees that are swaying in the wind as if the trees are high, too.
One of the most interesting scenes in the film is the one when Tommy wants to know the address of Mary Jane and he visits the person in the hospital who might have that information. The guy pleads him to sing a song first, while the police keep knocking on the latched door. But when Tommy starts singing Ikk Kudi, even the police stop knocking the door as if they, too, are mesmerized by the words of Shiv Kumar Batalvi. Also, the music of the film is excellently done by Amit Trivedi; each song is a revelation, and the background music, at many places, reminded me of Birdman.
Preet and Sartaj's romantic track was something that I totally enjoyed. Within their relationship, there is this repeating pattern of one of them running after the other when they are on their bikes. First, Sartaj runs after Preet when she is on her scooter to talk to him about his brother. Then, Preet runs after him when he is on his bike. Then, they both go on a bike. Again, in the end, she runs after him when he is on his bike to invite him of a date at CCD. During a scuffle, the guard of the factory injects a syringe in Sartaj's neck, he starts losing control of himself. It is a lovely moment when he starts speaking his true feelings about her to her. We never get to know if he found out that it was the effect of the drugs. Like it was in the case of Tommy, love is some kind of a drug for Sartaj.
The one character that really stands out or flies high in the film is that of Mary Jane. Actually, we never get to know her real name. This is the name that she makes up when Tommy calls him in the end. It is the character for whom we feel the most. Her character goes through unending trauma, yet she has the strength and the power to not lose hope and to not stop dreaming. Albert Camus famously wrote, "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." Mary Jane encapsulated that feeling. She can read English, she knows her maths, she is a district-level hockey player, and she dreams of a better life, an achcha time, for herself. The irony is that she dreams of being in Goa. In the last few years, Goa has been shown to be notoriously famous for drug culture in Hindi films, while Punjab has been the land of traditional culture, but the film reverses that notion and shows a mirror. Alia Bhatt as Mary Jane is spectacular. In Imtiaz Ali's Highway, she played Veera who falls in love with her kidnapper. At one point in that film, she is trapped in the truck and there is a checking at a crossing in Punjab, but she refuses to run away. Udta Punjab is the exact opposite of Highway in the sense that she got away unharmed in Highway, but whatever that could happen to her, happened to her in Udta Punjab. In Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, another film set in Punjab, she plays Kavya, but this Punjab is diametrically opposite to Punjab in that film; like the character of Dadi in Humpty Sharma is as opposite to gun-toting wife of Veerji, both of them played by Jaswant Daman.
Abhishek Chaubey belongs to Vishal Bharadwaj school of film-making. The final shootout is some kind of a trademark for Vishal's films. Both of Abhishek's previous films ended in a shootout during the climax; likewise, there is a shootout in Udta Punjab in the final moments. The performances are uniformly excellent by all cast and supporting cast. Shahid Kapoor slightly overacted at places, but never seems to strike a false note. Diljit Dosanjh is fabulous, he has great screen presence which can be very hard when you have a star like Kareena in the same scene. The film is finely made; the only slight quibble is that I missed something that made me go wow; I was not shocked by anything, perhaps, it says my own lack of emotions, but without a doubt, the film is meticulously researched and excellently executed, and there are not many films for which can we say that these days.
After watching the film, one realizes if the entire brouhaha with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) was really required. The film does not glorify the drug culture at all; rather, it shows the quite opposite of the harmful effects of drug. At one point in the film, Tommy's English girlfriend laughs at him saying that he is past his expiry date. It is the CBFC that is past its expiry date. In this age, when everything is avaialable on the internet, such a censorship makes no sense. People are much smarter than a few bureaucarts sitting in the a government office. If they don't like a film, they won't watch it.
Udta Punjab depicts a dystopian world as against the utopia that we are so used to in the movies. Characters are literally and metaphorically trapped in a prison and want to escape. There are two options, Mary Jane says, leave Punjab or leave drugs. Leaving drugs is the only way forward, until that happens, the cries and the tears of a generation, like that of Balli, will continue to haunt us long after.