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Cinema || Udta Punjab (Flying High)

‘Udta Punjab’ (Flying Punjab) has that distinct menace in its title that distinguishes it from run of the mill films on social issues.

While most would invoke anger to get to their point, suffusing the narrative with dollops of sympathy and revolutionary spirit, they would be devoid of that reflective understanding and a remotely sound plan to address the core problem. Thus, Udta Punjab steers clear of the ‘mass awareness’ storyline that has its own masterpieces, strategically spending that time to remove the onion peels of the business behind the lucrative trade. Thanks to Abhishek Chaubey’s sound skills in the craft of filmmaking, the plot smells menacingly close to a ‘solution’, even though ‘truth’ may be an overstatement.

‘Menace’ the word has always implied a sense of ‘mischief’ in this particular observer’s vocabulary, having associated the term with Hank Ketcham’s delightful creation – Dennis the Menace, the comic strip about a lovable little boy who is the manifestation of a real imp to Mr. Brown, his elderly next door neighbour.

Chaubey’s penchant for menace has been evident in the two ‘Ishqiya’s that he gifted his viewers. The trailer of ‘Udta Punjab’ promised no less with the loud and abrasive Shahid Kapoor splashed all over. Chaubey’s teaser reeked of a deliberate rockstar act that generates attention but doesn’t necessarily pose enough threat to earn the ire of the powers that be.

And yet, Chaubey’s ‘Udta Punjab’ became yet another episode in the history of film censorship where the people in power stepped in to halt a seemingly innocent march up the hill. They cried defamation and vulgarity in equal measures, trying their best to remove the sequences deemed offensive to the multifaceted Indian culture and strike off the ‘Punjab’ tag from its title and everywhere within, to banish the narrative from its adopted homeland into the realm of fiction, something that the film already claimed to be.

Popular notion suggests that the bonhomie between Punjab and drugs is no great secret. It is all but an open one, exploited and profited from. Thus, popular notion came to the conclusion that the powers that be were apprehensive about forthcoming elections in the western Indian state to allow a bunch of filmmakers to propagate and vindicate a notion that could jeopardise their electoral prospects.

The citizens, oblivious to the film’s actual content, became piqued over the debate. As the release date approached, matters rolled from the film certification board to the courts, where the voices of justice deigned that a small snip would be enough to make the film fit for desi consumption. They retained ‘Punjab’ and its allied references and most of the offensive language as well, barring a particular sequence where rockstar Shahid Kapoor urinates over the mob during one of his concerts.

And yet the lesson was painfully unlearnt when the film released over peer-to-peer file sharing services, days before its struggled release in theatres.

Whether it was the task of a “freethinking Samaritan” who understood the power of uninterrupted cinema OR the deeds of someone from the powers that be who felt bitter enough to put the makers’ financial prospects in jeopardy, is a matter that must remain for the grey cells of investigators to ruminate upon.

What stoked these humble grey cells was Chaubey’s creation itself – the sheer gall of a Bollywood filmmaker to cater to the several broken selves of a miraculously united nation: from the dubiously innocent police officers to the addicted teenagers, upright medical professionals who wage their silent war on drugs to girls with juvenile dreams of hockey who land up as a Punjab farmhands. It shamefully caters to the barely fertile imaginations of those who revel in the glow of drug-induced light, and to those who lose enough of their minds to murder the gifted, even their own mothers.

The haunting prison scene that has the rockstar Gabru (Kapoor) coming face to face with two of his matricidal fans, or take for example the little sequence where Kapoor’s character sings an impromptu number at the behest of a hospitalised gang member in exchange of information, while the police try to knock down the doors; Chaubey’s film is peppered with gems such as these, aided by commendable acting from big acts and small – a colourful collage of breathing characters.

Udta Punjab is a hauntingly beautiful film on a contemporary and pertinent social problem. How it stands on its own two feet has always been the measure of a film, since circumstances inevitably fade with the passage of time. As far as this benchmark is concerned, ‘Udta Punjab’ flies fine, with or without the aid of a deleted scene. []

Film: Udta Punjab
Directed by Abishek Chaubey
Released on  June 17, 2016
Featuring: Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Diljit Dosanjh

First published in Issue #6 of CultureCult Magazine (Monsoon 2016)