Tuesday, June 21, 2016

What about the good trip? Scattered thoughts on Udta Punjab

Is it a problem that my favourite scene in Udta Punjab isn’t one that depicts the horrific repercussions of drug use (as this film effectively does for much of its duration) but one that reminds us that a good high can, however temporarily, bring bliss and sweet silliness?

(And if I were to confess this to Pahlaj Nihalani, would he wag his finger at his detractors and say “I told the nation so”?)

I’m talking about the scene where we realise that the cop Sartaj (played by the likable Diljit Dosanjh) has a needle stuck in the back of his neck, shortly after having been attacked by a junkie. It took me a while to appreciate this tonally weird sequence, which leads one through a series of reactions, from alarm (“he’s been stabbed and he doesn’t know it yet!”) to bafflement (what's going on, is it a threat or a fashion statement? He knows it’s there and he doesn’t mind?). It’s only later, when Sartaj and his companion on this nighttime adventure, Dr Preet (Kareena Kapoor), have fallen off his bike, and we see front views of him with the syringe shyly bobbing about behind his turban, that the goofiness of the situation sets in.

There is visual poetry in these images. We also see the gradual loss of inhibition in a man who has so far been controlled and proper – there are glimpses of the feelings Sartaj is developing for Preet, which he wouldn’t otherwise express; then there is the tender moment where Preet discreetly takes the needle out of his neck and asks him to stick his tongue out just to make sure things are okay… and all this while, their languorous conversation is continuing. I thought these were lovely touches. Just clarifying, I didn't feel like sticking a needle into myself (that particular temptation has eluded me throughout my adult life, possibly because I was sated by years of passive substance-inhalation in my infancy and childhood), but the scene was still happy-making.

In the larger context of the film, it also performs the twin function of implicating and softening the viewer, getting us to lower our guard. I’m no Kareena fan, and found some of her scenes a little grating, but by the film’s end I could see the larger purpose in casting her as the beatific, lecture-dispensing doctor who gets to play Nancy Drew for a bit. In terms of providing an initial glimmer of light that makes the finale seem even darker, the casting made as much sense as her rosy-complexioned Desdemona in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Othello-in-the-UP-hinterland.

I’m probably revealing a personal bias in this post: one of my favourite themes in literature and film is that escapism/fantasy can be enormously sustaining in the right dose (and naturally, the dose varies for different people), but become destructive and crippling if taken too far. And that many lives are spent walking the tightrope, finding or failing to find a balance. (Of course, "escapism" and "fantasy" can cover a range of things, and the meaning of what is nourishing and what is destructive changes accordingly. For instance, it is one thing to feel a powerful adrenaline rush when watching a favourite actor delivering a great performance, or a favourite sportsman setting a record – to have an otherwise gloomy week brightened up by these things; but it is another thing to become obsessed to the point that you come to believe there is a real connection between you and the person on the screen, and that you must devote hours on end to trolling anyone who says anything negative about your hero.)

Udta Punjab has other variations on this theme. Consider how the rockstar Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is in danger of being destroyed by drugs but is saved – and rediscovers himself – when he gets a chance to help someone who is in even worse straits. (This is the second time in the past year, after the wonderful Shaandaar, that Kapoor has played a nutty prince who tries to rescue Alia Bhatt from a form of captivity. And Shaandaar, remember, had its own mind-altering substances in that magic mushroom song – a hallucinogenic trip put to good, constructive use.) But the clearest playing out of the theme is in the little promise of romance between Sartaj and the doctor. The stimulant in his system is what relaxes Sartaj and allows him to get mushy around Preet (which she eventually responds to). Yet substance abuse, in another context and another dose, is also what, a few scenes later, puts a swift end to their chance of happiness together.

P.S. A related thought: one result of the preposterous censorship controversy is that too many defenders of Udta Punjab (including its makers) have been put into the position of over-stressing the fact that it is not (not, NOT) a celebration of drug use: that it Gives. The. Message. That. Drugs. Are. Bad. Underline, underline. Which is fine, I suppose: being good-intentioned and trying to improve society aren’t terrible crimes in themselves, and a powerful medium like cinema certainly can help get the anti-drug message across. It just sticks a little in the craw for me, given how much I have enjoyed some films where you see addicts really having a good time, no matter how temporary it might be or how it all might end.

It is entirely possible for someone who has never done drugs himself (or someone who has seen up close how harmful substance abuse can be) to still feel the exhilaration of a scene like the one in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta goes on that nighttime car ride after shooting up, with the seductive strains of Bulwinkle Part II playing in the background, and lovingly shot slo-mo scenes of the needle entering the vein and the blood mixing with the heroin, and… well, you know. There’s a cinematic high if ever there was one. But again, I suppose it depends on how successfully you can separate escapism from reality (or good escapism from too much escapism). Anyway, it should be possible for a film to honestly depict the rush, while maybe also depicting the long-term consequences.


  1. Acting saved the movie, I guess. I found a lot of loopholes in story or what one would say questionable choices. Alia is raped for days, escapes this hell, is hiding somewhere and allows a complete stranger, just because he is Shahid, to hide there. Very unbelievable. Shahid riding bicycle for more than 100 kms to meet his love. He falls on reaching there and stands up when he sees that Goa ad. A man giving a clue to Shahid on where Alia is by making him sing. Very unbelievable again.

    Besides, even the way, scenes were stitched together was quite bad. Shahid telling his fans they are bigger fuddu than him - Well done, Shahid brings some emotion to the scene. Almost after it, he sees Alia in a chasing sequence and it becomes an emotional scene. Both the scenes, at least for me, demand a very different emotional set-up to appreciate. I also have to say that the movie shows almost nothing about how drug trade is done. Whatever they show can be gathered from hearsay. Not that they SHOULD HAVE done it. But, that might have elevated the movie.

  2. udta punjab is loosely based on the concept of martin scorsese's taxi driver. because the character of alia bhatt is inspired by judie foster and like shahid kapoor killed people in the end of the film for alia bhatt which is completely inspired from taxi driver that travis bickle killed people in the end of the film only for judie foster.

  3. N Bhavsar Safri: yes, there is a loose connection - the same way that the Jodie Foster story in Taxi Driver itself was inspired by John Ford's The Searchers. There are lots of echoes and inspirations of that sort in film history.

    1. thank you for reply and information about The Searchers, and another thing is that i had a lot expectations from Udta Punjab about to know the dark side of Punjab and drug addicted youth. but this film disappointed me. may be i am from Gujarat and had lots of expectations to know more about dark side of Punjab.