Udta Punjab opens with an unforgettable image of flight – a drug dealer from Pakistan flings across a crore-worth of heroin across the border, stretching his muscles and assuming the pose of a discus thrower. In this one short scene, director Abhishek Chaubey sets up his premise – drugs are dropping out of the sky in the northern state, compelling its people to act in strange and harmful ways.
Alia Bhatt, excellent as a Bihari migrant with brown make-up, steals the heroin and perilously decides to sell it herself. Meanwhile, drug-addled star rapper Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) has created a song that rhymes “coke” with “cock”, and he and his entourage, including his uncle (Satish Kaushik), are too pleased with themselves to foresee the inevitable consequences.
Also inevitable is the fate of Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh). An assistant police inspector who feeds on bribes from waving on trucks packed with narcotics, Sartaj is shaken out of his complacency only when his younger brother develops an addiction and lands up at a clinic run by the saintly Preet (Kareena Kapoor Khan).
These interwoven strands explain the what, where, who and how of the drug trade in Punjab without bothering with the when and the why. The social and economic roots of Punjab’s drug problem remain buried. The screenplay by Chaubey and Sudip Sharma keeps its eye on the supply chain and focuses on exposing the political bosses who run the business. The allusions to the complicity of the state’s reigning clan, the Badals, are unmissable. Udta Punjab, which has earned its share of notoriety for its run-in with the Central Board of Film Certification, makes the argument that has also been presented in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) – if the ordinary person’s veins are to remain clean, the head of the supplier must be chopped off.
The other most obvious tribute to Traffic is the frequent equation of Punjab with Mexico, whose war on drugs has spilled out into the streets in often horrific ways.
Udta Punjab never matches the harrowing quality of the films and documentaries about the Mexican drug trade, but it comes somewhat close in the strand involving Alia Bhatt’s farm labourer. She pays an immense price for her foolhardiness, and her struggle with addiction is presented in often-painful detail.
Sartaj’s cowboy antics, in which he involves Preet, are an excuse to showcase the Punjabi superstar’s easygoing charm and ability to woo the ladies. But the best-realised track is Tommy’s seriocomic adventure with cocaine. Shahid Kapoor, in one of his best performances in years, is perfectly cast as the immature and self-regarding Punjabi pop star, playing Tommy as a half-wit with a full beating heart. His open-jawed naiveté and unerring ability to rush lemming-like in the direction of danger are played for laughs, but they bring out the destructive ability of drugs far more than anything else in the movie.
Chaubey’s decision to put his characters through the wringer results in several beautifully performed sequences. Udta Punjab showcases the filmmaker’s strengths, including his ability to create complex and memorable characters within the framework of a realistic mainstream entertainer. Despite its occasional satirical tone, Udta Punjab has a clear moral approach to the drug trade, and nowhere is consumption romanticised.
Yet, Chaubey’s tendency to resort to contrivances and convenient coincidences is even more glaring than in Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya. A Western-style gunfight helped both those films reach the end credits, and a similar display of firepower brings Udta Punjab to its unlikely and unconvincing climax.
There’s texture to spare in the beautifully shot (by cinematographer Rajeev Ravi) and designed (by production designers Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Sen) movie. Some of Sudip Sharma’s dialogue is admirably on point. When Sartaj, who is disturbed over his brother’s condition, loses his cool and attacks the drug-bearing truck, his elder brother and fellow accomplice in corruption unwittingly sets him on the path that will lead to the suppliers: “Beat up the guy all you want, but why damage the truck?”
Other bits are far too on-the-nose, which is perhaps to be expected in a movie that wants to make a big statement about the political connections that have converted Punjab into an open-air drug den. Lines such as “It’s not about you or me, it’s about Punjab” and a close-up of Diljit Dosanjh’s blood-smeared face restate the obvious, and do nothing to reveal the reasons for why vast pockets of the population prefer to be lost to reality rather than face it.
However, the plunge into the hell-hole is ultimately too stretched to achieve its intended impact. Some ruthless editing was needed to strip the unwieldy narrative of its indulgences and trim the running time from 148 minutes. Udta Punjab soars on the back of hard-hitting scenes and superb performances from its cast, but a shorter trip would have given the movie the kick it sorely needed to be counted as the definitive drama on the moral corruption of an entire society.