Udta Punjab Movie Review

album_artI had heard of this Bollywood movie before it had even released, because of how controversial it was. Apparently, there was a scene in the movie where the main character literally peed upon people and the Indian Censor Board made nearly 100 cuts in the film. The latter action led to protests, claiming that the Censor Board was acting arbitrary and employing censorship in a free speech country. As a result, the film was pirated heavily before it was even officially released. So, as you can probably surmise, it created quite a ruckus in its early days, despite still being in production. Hence, when it came out, I was a little hesitant to watch the film for the content and decided that I would rather wait for the movie to be released online rather than watch it in theatres. Luckily, it appeared on NetFlix and I took the plunge and watched it.

Broadly, the movie deals with the theme of drug abuse in the Indian state of Punjab, and it does so through the usage of four distinct characters who also inhabit distinct parallel stories; those directly involved with drugs and those indirectly.

The story begins with rockstar Tommy and his mania. After getting lucky in England, Tommy lands a music record deal and becomes a huge sensation in Punjab, India. Not sure what to sing about, he sings about the only thing he knows: drugs. His songs are full of references to alcohol, drugs, misbehaviour, etc. His usage of drugs affects him adversely, to the point where he accidentally shoots his beloved uncle in the ear. After getting arrested for possession, he finally experiences the adverse effect his songs and persona have had on the youth of Punjab. There’s a chilling scene where two young boys, in the same jail as Tommy, begin singing one of Tommy’s songs, never once missing a beat. They praise him and speak of him as their idol. It’s only afterwards that we learn that the boys were in jail for killing their mother — after she refused to give them money to get their next hit.

However, no matter how much Tommy wants to leave the drugs behind, he has no idea how to as they fulfil such a pivotal role in his life. There’s a scene where after getting arrested for drug possession and his shooting mania, Tommy is convinced to give a concert promoting drug abstention. However, before he goes on stage, Tommy begins freaking out. He’s never performed without drugs, he only ever performs about drugs. Without them, he doesn’t know what to do. His cousin covertly comes to his rescue and gives him a small hit. At first, Tommy is repulsed and throws away the package, after remembering the whole drug-induced shooting fiasco. The uncle he shot at, was the uncle who looked after him after his father died, the uncle who sent him to London, the uncle who funded his sister’s wedding, the uncle who manages his career, the uncle who was willing to go to jail for him, the uncle he himself adores. However, his anxiety gets the best of him and he takes the hit. On stage, he begins to lose it, revealing his anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, and humble origin story. However, his fans revolt, wanting to hear him sing about drugs. Tommy looses fully and urinates on his fans, to their fury. They break through barricades and begin chasing him. This is where he comes into contact with Bauriya.

“Bauriya,” played by Alia Bhatt, was a former rising hockey star. But her father’s early death forces her to move to Punjab and work as a migrant farmer to earn money. While working in the fields, she inadvertently comes across a packet of drugs. Naively, she dreams of selling them and finally living the high life. Through street smarts, she calculates how many kilos she has and how much she can sell them for. She gets into contact with a local drug lord and brokers a meetup. On the way to the meetup, she’s incredibly happy. She dresses up pretty and is thrilled when a local boy notices her. However, the further she gets to her designation, the further she realizes what a stupid position she’s put herself in. She becomes wary of the attention of the men leering at her and gets pursued by the drug lords goons. Finally realizing her folly in getting involved in such a dangerous and dirty situation, she attempts to rectify by throwing all the drugs down a well. However, she’s caught by the goons and taken back to the drug layer. They decide what to do with her, and come to the decision to take her as a sexual play-thing.

In an heart-breaking scene, Bauriya realizes what’s happening and desperately fights to be free. She manages to make it out of the room she’s been held captive but then is pinned down and forcibly injected with heroin. As she fades with the drugs, she’s presumably gang-raped. She’s kept as a play-thing and used by numerous people, all while being given drugs to keep her restrained. She wakes up one night, in a drug haze, and walks through the goons house (the drug lord lives in a normal Punjab house) until she ends up at the entrance. She stands there, unaware, until another goon points at her and snaps her out of her haze, making her realize her opportunity for escape. She runs away and meets Tommy whose also on the run, but from his fans.

Tommy discusses his sad life and asks her if she’d like to join him in suiciding — because he sees no other way out. Bauriya scoffs at him and iterates her intent to live and fight on. After Tommy’s fans find him and beat him up, Bauriya manages to use her hockey skills to save him. Fed up of his talking, Bauriya finally reveals her horrible story — kissing him and telling him that her captors did everything to her but that. Tommy is taken aback and finally realizes that there’s other options. After seeing Bauriya get recaptured by the drug goons, he makes it his priority to rescue her.

Meanwhile, on the other side, police officer Sartaj, played by Diljit Dosanjh, uses his wits to directly benefit from the system. Although he doesn’t explicitly partake in the drug trade by taking them or selling them, he does encourages their illegal sale alongside his other corrupt officers. However, when his younger brother gets involved, Sartaj’s world is taken for a spin as he finally experiences first-hand results of his activities. He forcefully admits his younger brother to a rehabilitation centre. Feeling incredibly guilty, he decides to straighten his world and secretly teams up with Dr. Preet to reveal the main men behind the drug trade to the government, in hopes that things would change.

Dr Preet, played by Kareena Kapoor Khan, is vehemently opposed to drugs and runs a rehabilitation centre alongside publishing several article about the dangers of drugs. It is through Sartaj’s younger brother’s overdose that she meets Sartaj. They both decide to team up and take down the illegal drug trade by outing the men. She generally plays a more outside role in the conflict before Sartaj recruits her to spy with him. Using his police training, Sartaj manages to scope out a fake business through which drugs are illegally obtained. He manages to trace the business to a building and finds out that a local politician, who publicly abhors drugs and argues against them, has been actively taking part in the drug trade. He convinces Preet to come along with him to a stakeout and using her medical acumen and his skills, they manage to get incriminating proof for those behind the illegal drug trade and the main drug lord. Through their time together, they grow close and Sartaj develops a crush on Preet. After they finish their report, she reciprocates and the two make plans to go on a date after submitting their report to the government.

However, during that same night, Sartaj’s younger brother, suffering from withdrawal symptoms, angry at being detained against his will in the rehabilitation facility, and wanting to go back to his old lifestyle, breaks glass and manages to escape the facility. Preet comes and attempts to stop him. In an heart-breaking scene, instead of treating him like any other patient and saving her hide, Preet instead attempts to handle Sartaj’s little brother head-on, thinking of him as more than just any other patient due to the Sartaj connection. In the ensuing struggle, the younger brother ends up fatally stabbing Preet. As Sartaj is a part of the local police, they come to the crime scene and begin attempting to stage the murder as a robbery attempt gone wrong, in an effort to protect the brother as they see Sartaj as one of their own. However, in their attempts, they come across the damning report written by Sartaj and Preet that outs all of them as a part of the drug trade. Furious, they grab him and take him to the house of the local drug lord, the same place where Bauriya is being held.

I’m going to refrain from giving out the ending because I think it’s one of the more interesting scenes. In general, I think this is one of the best movies I’ve seen made in 2016. There were a lot of times where I was taken aback by just how hard-hitting and uncomfortable some scenes where. It didn’t shy away from portraying the grim realities of drug abuse. There’s nothing glorifying about it. As the movie showed, everyone is affected by it and no one wins.

What I also appreciated, was how the story was told. There wasn’t really an overt preachy message being shown. If anything, both good and bad people suffered. Also, while the theme of the movie was serious, there were moments of dark humour that elevated the movie. One really great example, was the one mentioned of the boys singing to Tommy in jail earlier. It starts off funny but then quickly becomes horrifying. And I think it symbolized the attraction and eventual life-cycle of addictions well. Also, even with the extremely dark theme and story-telling, I appreciated how the makers displayed little glimpses of hope. There are two scenes that particularly stand out to me:

1. In an effort to rescue Bauriya, Tommy sneaks into a hospital to meet a drug goon to figure out Bauriya’s location. The goon recognizes Tommy and demands that Tommy sing a song before he reveals the location. Tommy proceeds to sing a song. However, instead of singing about drugs or any of his previous songs, he instead sings a beautiful song (sidenote– the song was actually written by a famous Punjabi poet in the 1900s) about a girl, presumably Bauriya. That scene is so beautiful because it symbolizes the hopeful future, not only for Tommy, but also for Punjab. Tommy finally found something else to focus upon, to become his muse; thereby lessening his reliance on the drugs. Whereas the fact that the song was actually composed by a Punjabi poet and speaks of such beauty is hopeful, symbolizing that the land is capable of producing more than just drug addled youths. Sidenote — Tommy actually sort of symbolized Punjab for me — something caught up in its dependence/ system and seeing no out but then realizing that there is hope and freedom.

2.  When Bauriya is first given the drugs in an attempt to subdue her, she obviously experiences a feeling like no other. In the movie, this feeling is symbolized by her swimming freely in a vast open space; floating and being weightless. At the end of the film, when she’s finally drug-free, she goes and begins swimming in the ocean. And the director filmed the scene exactly like the previous swimming scene, with her floating and being weightless. In order words, implying that it was possible to achieve immeasurable peace and happiness using things other than drugs. Thereby providing a hopeful message that drugs aren’t the only things that will bring you peace/ there’s no reason to take them.

On that note, Alia Bhatt’s acting is fantastic. Her Bihari accent does slip a few times, but the sheer amount of emotion and feeling she brings as Bauriya is outstanding. Her monologue after beating up Tommy’s fans was amazing. Another shining star was Diljit Dosanjh. From what I understand, this was his debut performance and he just knocked it out of the park. He brought so much depth to Sartaj and completely grounded his actions. I was taken aback. Kareena Kapoor Khan and Shahid Kapoor were also fantastic of course. However, I will say that Kareena Kapoor Khan’s acting as Preet reminded me quite a bit of her performance in Jab We Met as Geet. Also, the two mentioned before just blew me away. Stand out, wonderful performances. An absolutely wonderful, hard-hitting film.

That said, I’d also warn people. This movie is incredibly, INCREDIBLY offensive in its language. I don’t think there was a single scene in which swear words were not used. And there is some violence as well.

My rating:  Be prepared to be blown away by the darkness and grimness of this film and marvel at the story-telling abilities of the film and actors.

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