Abhishek Chaubey was known for the longest time in the movie business as Vishal Bhardwaj’s right-hand man. Chaubey began as an assistant director to Bhardwaj on Makdee (2002) and worked on several of his films, including The Blue Umbrella and Omkara. In 2010, Chaubey directed his first film, Ishqiya, followed by Dedh Ishqiya in 2014. The June 17 release Udta Punjab, which examines the theme of substance abuse through a cross-section of characters, is his most ambitious film to date. The ensemble cast includes Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Alia Bhatt and Diljit Dosanjh. Udta Punjab is also Chaubey’s first project without Bhardwaj, whom he credits with shaping his craft.

How did you get the idea of exploring substance abuse in Punjab? Was the plot based on a news report or a study?
The idea started as a film on substance abuse per se. I had some characters in my head and I wanted to do a film about the users and the people close to them and how they are affected. The idea I had was a cross-country story – a DJ in New Delhi, someone in Manipur and someone in Mumbai, and you look at society through that lens. I discussed the idea with my writer Sudip Sharma, who suggested that Punjab might be the right setting for it. That rang a bell in my head. I was terribly excited, especially as the characters I had were neatly fitting into the setting.

We are not so much focusing on the drug trade, but more so on the life of a drug user and how it affects family and the people involved, one way or another, say law enforcement and doctors. This film is not about the bad guys, but the end user and those impacted by the user.
The trailer of ‘Udta Punjab’.

Why substance abuse?
Drugs occupy a very important space in cinema. So many films have tackled it but in our films there is a paucity of exploration on the subject. It is usually about the smuggling of charas. As a filmmaker, you are looking for spaces that are available for you that might be looked at as original content. This was exciting for me as a filmmaker. Secondly, it is a much bigger problem than we acknowledge; it’s right before our eyes and we chose to ignore it. But you can see it even as you walk down the streets of Mumbai, not to mention in homes and at parties. It is happening all around us, but the drug debate and discussion is limited to the quantities caught, the drug mafia or Goa. We don’t talk about how it is so close to us, and all around us. Both of these things attracted me to it.

What kind of research did you do? Did you spend time in Punjab before the shoot?
We spent a considerable amount of time there. We did not have a story before. We had some characters and the stories came from our research and experiences. It is fiction, but based on this. Punjab has similar problems to the rest of the country, but more concentrated, partly because it is close to the border. But it’s also a victim of the problem, not the perpetrator. It’s on the trade route for drugs. Abuse is a problem in urban centres too, for sure, but the real problem is in rural areas – and that is essentially what Udta Punjab is about. Because of very easy access, even children and adolescents start using in the rural areas.

How is ‘Udta Punjab’ different from other drug-related films, such as Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Traffic’?
There are many films on the subject that I have watched and loved – such as Traffic and Requiem for A Dream. Udta Punjab is not a radical departure from those but a different take on the subject. The film uses a multi-track narrative with characters whose paths intersect. We have employed music, stars and humour to make it an entertaining film that aims to reach a larger number of people.

The casting of Alia Bhatt as a Bihari labourer and the darkening of her complexion has been both lauded and criticised.
Yes, that’s true. I had not considered Alia at all for the part but Shahid [Kapoor] suggested her. Although I think she is a very good actor, I didn’t think she would suit the role. Even when I met her I was skeptical. We had a frank chat and I was not still not completely convinced. But she committed herself very well to the project. She doesn’t know her Bhojpuri from her Bihari and here she had to play a migrant 19-year-old labourer forced into doing what she is doing. She had to learn Bhojpuri and speak Hindi with an accent. We had Pankaj Tripathi help us out. He talkedto her about her character, conducted workshops, helped her with the accent and she dived right into it. It was mainly a matter of preparation because she understood the character emotionally.

As for her complexion, well, she is working in the sun day in and day out. When you work in the sun you get sunburnt, you tan and get freckles and if you don’t wash your hair it bleaches and turns brown. Her character goes through several stages, so her look changes as we go along.

How did you come up with such a catchy title?
There is a scene in which Tommy [Shahid Kapoor], a Punjabi bhangra rapper, raps about how different parts of the state are flying, such as udta Jalandhar, etc. So we came up with the title from this song. We had written “tentative” below the title Udta Punjab, but it was liked by all and stuck.

After working so closely with Vishal Bhardwaj, what was it like breaking away?
This is what I do and I love what I do and in that sense, it has been tremendously challenging and very difficult to write, make, and edit a film when you have so many characters – primary and secondary – with or without Vishal. It’s been nice that I have been a part of the creative team of so many films with Vishal. We had a nice rhythm going – I write a film, I direct and he produces it. There was a bit of apprehension and fear working with a different team, but I think I have managed somehow. It was a conscious decision on both our parts. I am ambitious with the movies I make. But we are still great friends and maybe we will collaborate again in the future.

Currently, I am enjoying collaborating with Sudip and we are working on another script. It’s a period film set in the ’70s. I want to maintain a decent strike rate. There was a gap of four years between my first and second film. I can’t afford that. I mean I literally cannot afford that!