Udta Punjab is many things, and it manages to mostly balance all of them. It’s a PSA (public service announcement) on drugs. It’s an indictment of corruption and greed. It’s the exploration of a hyper-masculine, violent, misogynistic culture. It’s the story of a reformed corrupt cop fighting the system. But most of all, for me, it was a treatise on privilege.
The film deliberately draws comparisons between the two protagonists who are drug addicts. Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is a pop star, a rich spoiled man-child who came into fame and success at 22. Alia Bhatt’s character is a desperately poor young Bihari migrant and a forced addict who fights back. Tommy is known and revered all over the state: crowds scream his name. In contrast, in a poignant piece of commentary on her insignificance in the world, the audience doesn’t learn her name, she is an unnamed Bihari migrant — because no one around her cares, except Tommy.
But the film keeps underlining both how alike their situations are, and how differently they deal with it. Both are alone and unloved: Tommy is surrounded by handlers and an uncle and a cousin who ‘manages’ him, by guards who protect him (even from himself), by fans and groupies. Yet it’s evident no one really cares about him or about what’s best for him. Alia’s character is really alone, having left her home in Bihar to work as a field labourer in a village in rural Punjab. She also, is surrounded by people — her fellow workers who she also lives with, supervisors — but it’s much more obvious in this case that no one has her interests at heart.
Tommy’s drug addiction is core to his music — he writes about drugs, and apparently his music encourages others, even children, to get high. She, on the other hand, finds a very valuable pack of heroin by accident, and understandably tries to sell it, hoping for a better life and ends up abducted and imprisoned and forced to be a sex worker and into addiction. The film starkly underlines how both her gender and her poverty leave her vulnerable.
The movie relentlessly mocks his cluelessness, his pretentiousness. And then it makes us sympathise with him. Underneath that core of self-absorbedness, he is — or can be — a good person, willing to go to great lengths to save her in gratitude for having saved him. (The movie frames this as a love story, and it’s a love story I’ve never been more invested in, but not for the romance itself. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether they actually get together, but Tommy might be the one person who — through his will and sheer luck and tremendous privilege and fame that makes strangers help him — might actually rescue her. It would have made even more sense if it was gratitude and a desire for justice that was driving him, rather than ‘love’ for a near stranger).
But in spite of living through the worst nightmare, she never loses her sense of self, her dignity, or even her sense of humour. We feel sorry for Tommy, poor little rich kid. But she is so full of bravery that you admire her through the horrendous fate the movie puts her through. The sexual violence is difficult to watch (trigger warning!), not least because it feels so real.
The other track — the two are related but don’t converge paths till the end — are of Kareena Kapoor’s Dr Preet Sahani and Diljit Dosanjh’s Sartaj Singh, who decide to join forces to fight the ‘war on drugs’. Like the other story, this is also framed as a romance, though it didn’t need to be. And again like the other story, the woman is a shining tower of strength whose integrity is never shaken, and the man was a weak corrupt being before the woman’s example embarrasses him and makes him want to be better. (Thankfully, not all women are supposed to be perfectly righteous – the drug mafia lord’s wife is perfectly intent on her own survival).
This was the more predictable story and Kapoor’s acting rather patchy (veering from responsible doctor who is full of righteous anger to overexcited amateur detective), but Dosanjh makes it work. His Sartaj is so full of innocent faith that you not only believe in his character, but also begin to believe that things might just work out.
Udta Punjab will be remembered for its gritty, realistic portrayal of a man’s reaction at being asked out for coffee.
— kaufmanic (@kaufmanic) June 19, 2016
I feel like I want to put on record here the characters I hated most in the movie — apart from, of course, the obvious villains. Sartaj’s kid bro is such an ass, drug addict or not. But I wish Alia had taken that hockey stick to Jassi (Tommy’s cousin/friend/flunkey). He was the one I was yelling about, a few hours later: “Who the fuck gives drugs to a recovering addict? And then complains about what he did later? You’re fucking living on Tommy all these years and you can’t help him once when he begs you for it? And later you’re best friends with him again? Dump him, Tommy!”
Ahem. Speaking of what I didn’t like, a few things about the movie didn’t work for me. Tommy, throughout, is a caricature: the only scene I thoroughly liked him in was the otherwise very ‘filmy’ meet-cute scene with Alia’s character where they are both hiding in a deserted abandoned building. And then he transforms into a typical romance hero. It does seem to make sense for the character — for the first time, he’s found someone to care about, something meaningful to do — but it would make more sense if he fumbled it badly.
Alia’s character doesn’t seem to be transformed by the violence she went through (and committed), which seems unrealistic, though it’s nice wish fulfillment, and I guess we needed that by the end of the movie.
Kareena Kapoor’s Dr Sahani is, as Sartaj says, too ‘perfect’. Unlike the other three protagonists, she doesn’t get a back story, and we have no idea what’s motivating her, what’s her source of strength. She seems a symbol more than a character, and is predictably fridged to provide Sartaj extra motivation.
The film barely passes the Bechdel-Wallace test — I think there was one scene early on where Alia’s character asks her roommates for something (a pen?). There are no named women at all except for Dr. Sahani. At various points in the movie, I was wishing for Kareena Kapoor to rescue Alia Bhatt, but it remains a movie where men need to do the rescuing (or the avenging).
Featured Image Credit: Udta Punjab official poster