The thing with watching a film by or associated with filmmaker (co-producer in this case) Anurag Kashyap is that you must offer up a sense of ravenousness. The experience is generally a multi-layered 'meal', one that requires a large emotional and mental appetite. Udta Punjab fills you up.
The controversy that dogged the film prior to its release obviously also helped it, with a curious audience discussing it as the curtains went up on the first day.
The story examines three parallel tracks. Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is a tattooed, long-haired pop star from Birmingham propped up by Tayaji (Satish Kaushik) and his crew on cocaine and past success. Unnamed Bihari migrant (Alia Bhat) is a district-level hockey player who finds herself working as a labourer in a field in Punjab after her father's death and who, in a heroin gang fight, gets imprisoned by a group of men forcefully injecting drugs and their violence into her. Preet Sahani (Kareena Kapoor Khan) is a doctor working to rehabilitate drug addicts. Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh in his debut role) is a corrupt assistant inspector who, after a change of heart on finding his younger brother to be an addict too, turns to fight the system, teaming up with her to get to the heart of narco-politics in the state.
The run-time of nearly 150 minutes could have been snipped as the script becomes loose in parts. But Bhatt and Kapoor are praiseworthy in their roles. Kapoor as the constant borderline psychotic made so by excessive use of banned substances while Bhatt is the real rock star of the film. The vulnerable look of her character belies the persevering strength of her spirit as she clutches on hope of a better life, deciding to fight off her addiction, firmly focussed on a billboard advertising a Goan holiday across her dark, imprisoned room. The window looking out to the billboard could easily be a symbolic reference, pointing out the other state known for narcotics.
The scene in the jail where Tommy meets a pair of young brothers who idolised him and killed their mother for a drug fix, stands in contrast to the part when Sartaj pulls the trigger on his family member—on principle. His character, as a police officer who cares about his state, is thankfully shorn of any sense of rabid nationalism. Dosanjh is refreshing in his debut role but his chemistry with Khan seems forced.
Set against the disturbing collusion between politics, elections and narcotics in the state and the drug-afflicted youth, the film explores gender dynamics, equating love with respect, through its lead pairs.
The story also examines the battle of the individual, whether it's striving for victory for a larger cause or over the self. One that's perhaps symbolic too—much like the film's triumphant release.
Move over drugs, love is the new high. That's the larger message here if you're looking for one.
Film: Udta Punjab
Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Cast: Alia Bhatt, Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Diljit Dosanjh, Satish Kaushik