On September 23, The Times of India website speculated about whether the 2016 movie Udta Punjab was based on High Society, a 2002 novel by Ben Elton. The biggest clue lay in the title, the article claimed: the word “high” being translated into Hindi as “udta” and Punjab replacing “society”.
High Society is a dark comedy about British drug culture. The characters include a rocker Tommy Hanson, who is a drug addict. Tommy meets Jessie, a 17-year-old woman who has run away to London from her home in Scotland. She is exploited by a pimp who drugs her and forces her into prostitution. There's also commander Barry Leman, a righteous police officer who wants to lay bare the vast drug network supported by top-ranking police officers and politicians.
All three characters bear a strong resemblance to the three lead characters in Udta Punjab. Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is a pop star with a history of substance abuse. Mary Jane (Alia Bhatt) is a runaway who is coerced into drug use and abused as a sex slave. Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) is a police officer who files a report indicting himself and his colleagues for their involvement in drug smuggling from Pakistan into India.
The film’s screenwriter Sudip Sharma categorically denied that High Society was the inspiration for Udta Punjab. “Not really," he told Scroll.in. “The one big inspiration for me was Traffic.” That 2000 crime drama, directed by Steven Soderbergh and based on the 1989 British television series Traffik, deals with illegal drug trade between America and Mexico. “I had read the [Ben Elton] book a long time back,” Sharma said. “I don’t remember most of it."
Sharma said he was also inspired by an article in Tehelka magazine by Sai Manish. “It was on the Punjab drug crisis,” he said. “This article was published in 2012, a few months before I met the director of the film, Abhishek Chaubey.”
The screenwriter told Chaubey that he wanted to make a film on the rampant drug problem in the country, but did not have a plot. “Abhishek wanted to do a film around the idea of drugs, so I shared the article with him,” Sharma said. “It was a fairly detailed article carrying a lot of information on the drug culture in Punjab. It was an eye-opener.”
He asked the Tehelka reporter to help him research for the script. “Four years back it was not much of a discourse on the national level,” Sharma said. “So I went to Delhi and met Manish and got some more contacts and met some more people in Punjab, those who were mentioned in the article and from there on it spiralled into extensive research in Punjab.”
Chaubey and Sharma met rehabilitation workers, drug addicts and police officers. Chaubey wanted the lead character of his film, Tommy Singh, to be a Delhi-based deejay. Sharma insisted that they change the character’s profession to a pop singer to reflect Punjab’s music scene. “I do remember the rock star character though I don’t remember the name,” Sharma said about the identical names in High Society and Udta Punjab. “Tommy Singh at that time sounded like a take on Honey Singh”.
Chaubey did not respond to requests for comments despite repeated phone calls and messages.
Here are the bits in the movie and the novel that appear to overlap.
In Udta Punjab: The delirious drug addict rock star Tejinder Singh (Shahid Kapoor), whose stage name is Tommy, is shown fleeing away from irate fans after he has urinated on them at a stage concert. He runs into Mary Jane (Alia Bhatt), an escaped sex slave seeking cover from her oppressors who drug and rape her. The two wait out in the abandoned wreckage of a house till morning. They begin to talk and Tommy finds out that she has had worse luck than him. The goons arrive and drag her away, knocking him unconscious. He wakes up with a start, muttering to himself that he must find her and save her. This event gives the lead character his raison d’etre and hurtles the film towards a thrilling climax.
In High Society: Rock star and drug addict Tommy Hanson is mugged by fans outside a pub. Intoxicated and injured, he roams the streets and runs into Jessie, a sex slave who has escaped from a brothel where her pimp drugs her before client visits. They sit down and exchange stories. Jessie’s hecklers arrive and tear her away from Hanson. He is knocked out by one of the men as he sees Jessie being bundled into a car. He calls the incident his epiphany. Hanson later recollects, “In that first hour or so I was in Jessie’s company, that’s her name by the way, Jessie, I decided I was going to save her. That’s right, I was going to save. And then she could save me.”
In Udta Punjab: While travelling in Tommy Singh’s car, his girlfriend giggles at his fracas with the music company executives he is chasing down the road. Tommy drags her out of the vehicle and dumps her on the roadside.
In High Society: While travelling in Tommy Hanson’s limousine, his girlfriend mildly suggests that the country has no bona fide pop stars left. He throws her out of the car in the middle of a street in London.
In Udta Punjab: Police officer Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) is apprehended by a senior officer who tries to stop him from submitting a report on their criminal activities to the Election Commission.
In High Society: Commander Barry Leman investigates the corruption of police officers within the Anti-Drug Squad. He is threatened by colleagues to stop snooping.
In Udta Punjab: Tommy has a manager named Tayaji. Tommy is also called Gabru by fans and is surrounded by an entourage of sycophants who wear T-shirts with the words “Gabru da crew” emblazoned on them.
In High Society: Tommy Hanson has a manager named Tony. His posse of young men wear neckpieces with the phrase “Tommy’s Crew” laminated on them.
In Udta Punjab: Tommy Singh gets the word “fuddu” inked on his scalp. The word is common slang in Punjab for an idiot as well as a woman’s genitals.
In High Society: Tommy steps into a tattoo parlour and requests the artist to shave his head and tattoo the word twat, slang for a stupid person or woman’s genitals, on his scalp.
In Udta Punjab: Mary Jane tells Tommy Singh about her dream. She wants to visit Goa, where she can sit in the sunshine and gaze at the sea. In the climax, she is seen sitting on a sunny beach. She gets there after Tommy Singh rescues her from her abductors.
In High Society: When Tommy Hanson meets Jessie, she tells him she will give up drugs and take a holiday to a place which has plenty of sunshine and a beach to soak on. The event finally takes place in the closing chapter after Hanson finds her. “Jessie sat watching the ocean, running the sand through her fingers and toes.”
In the novel, Jessie is described as a woman with “greasy hair and grimy skin”. Elton writes, “Destitution was written large upon her.” Jessie flees from her home in a village near Glasgow, where she was an accomplished gymnast. Mary Jane (Alia Bhatt) leaves her village in Bihar to work as a farm labourer in Punjab after her dreams of playing state-level hockey are quashed.
Tommy Hanson is a megalomaniac, constantly reminding people about his fame by shouting “I am Tommy Hanson.” Tommy Singh never forgets to remind those who surround him by yelling in the same manner. Hanson is surprised by Jessie’s ignorance of his fame in the same way that Mary Jane is unaware of Tommy Singh’s popularity when they meet.