Movie Review : Udta Punjab


Every once in a while, we get a film that receives more than its fair share of controversy, which might or mightn’t be deserved. Ishqiya-fame Abhishek Chaubey’s latest, Udta Punjab (Flying Punjab), is one such film. Its focus on the drug menace in the north Indian state of Punjab had the Central Board of Film Certification Chief Pahlaj “Sanskaari” Nihalani seething and frothing, suggesting some 89 cuts. Thanks to the stupendous Indian judiciary, we have the film in an almost-uncut version in the theaters. Thank God!


The film has a disclaimer at the beginning which precedes another, more mundane one. The former addresses most concerns that had developed as a result of the needless controversy. The film then starts in earnest with a landscape shot of wheat fields in the wintery dark and three men on a rickety scooter, approaching the Indian border from the Pakistani side. One of them, an international-level discus thrower, uses his skills to transport a packet of heroin to the Indian side. And just like that, Punjab starts flying.
Shahid Kapoor’s Tommy “Gabru” Singh is a self-serving, egotistical pop star whose drug-themed songs are all the rage in the state. He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with how he’s leading his life and what his impact on the society is. Punjabi singer-actor Diljit Dosanjh’s Sartaj Singh is a crooked ASI in the police department who thinks nothing wrong of turning a blind eye towards the drug peddlers until the problem comes home in the shape of his teenage brother. Kareena Kapoor Khan’s Dr. Preet Sahani is an anti-drug crusader who wants to bring a change in the society. Finally, Alia Bhatt’s Bihari migrant labourer is someone who gets caught up in a profound mess she has no idea about, both literally and figuratively.
Tommy is arrested on the orders of a parliamentarian who wants to make a statement about the drug war the state has to wage. Once incarcerated, Tommy sees the true impact his songs have on the youth. That jail scene is one of many in the film which are shocking in their revelatory nature and will stay with you long after you’ve vacated your seats. Alia’s migrant labourer is a transformation in both cosmetic and acting terms. Though she doesn’t totally own the Bhojpuri accent she takes up here, her character has such fierceness and drive, not to say grit of character, that one can’t help getting bowled over. Quite contrary to what Mr. Nihalani alleged, the film is a brutally honest attempt to bring to screen an issue that’s been plaguing the Grain Bowl of India for years. Despite its own limitations, only Bollywood could have made a film that’s this honest and grand in scale. A regional film might have had the heart and aim of this one, but it’d have struggled to gain the eyeballs that this one has. And make no mistake, gaining eyeballs is important here. Most non-Punjabis today have no idea about the kind of drug epidemic the state is facing. Educating the masses is one of the steps towards bringing change. Let’s hope the uproar this one has generated forces governments and society to take long-term actions. The film shows how the politician-police-drug mafia nexus is hurting the fight on the ground. In a poignant scene, Preet says that the real fight against drugs is being fought by the addicts. If they win, Punjab wins. If they lose, well…

Kareena proves here that she can act when she gets a good script. For an actress who has films like Omkara, Jab We Met and Chameli on her CV, the past few years have been largely listless with arm candy roles in ₹ 100-crore grossers. Here, in a role which demands her to be nuanced and in control, she ditches the superfluous and turns on the charm. Shahid Kapoor gets another reminder that he is more suited to films like Kaminey and Haider than, say, Shaandaar. His Tommy is narcissistic and over-the-top as well as heartfelt and understated, according to the situation’s demands. Diljit Dosanjh makes an interesting début. He is a superstar in Punjab and shows here that he could be a force in Hindi cinema too. The song “Ek Kudi”, sung by him, is touching and with a couple of repeats on the music player, would catch on the lips fast. But the movie’s most satisfying character arc is that of Alia Bhatt’s Mary Jane (as she tells us in a scene). Despite all the heartbreaks and obstacles life throws at her, she has the iron will and determination to keep going on for what she wants her destiny to be. Her monologue when she describes her life late in the film is spellbinding. It is also a refreshing change to have a character from the rural Bihar/UP background in the lead which has an arc like this. Credit to the makers and the actress for pulling this off. A couple of guys in the row ahead of mine in the theatre were actually wondering whether the actress playing the migrant was indeed Alia. A bit too goofy you might say, but such is the state of information in the Internet Age.

Points to Ponder :
1) The film has a lot of profanities which, if you have been following the news recently, is common knowledge. So if you’re one of those who find that offensive, please save your money for something more suited to your tastes.


2) The film is in Punjabi mostly, with Hindi and Bhojpuri making occasional appearances. The filmmakers have used an easier version of the language so that the movie is understood easily. They’ve also provided English subtitles which is good I think but should probably have been in Hindi for the rural masses. Regardless, the dialogues aren’t hard to understand for non-Punjabis like me. 🙂

3) Typically for an Abhishek Chaubey film, Udta Punjab has a lot of dry humour and situational comedy that will keep you tickling. Occasionally, the profanities are funny too.

Udta Punjab is Rated A and is 148 minutes long. It is now playing in cinemas.

Rating : 4.5/5.

Share your thoughts on the film and the review in the comments. Thanks for reading.


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