Abhishek Chaubey showed tremendous potential with his directorial debut ‘Ishqiya’ (2010). He followed it up with ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ (2014), the sequel which turned out to be a better product than its predecessor. After working with mentor Vishal Bhardwaj on a couple of films as a writer and a director, Chaubey moves out of his fold and makes ‘Udta Punjab’ (2016), a film jointly produced by Alt Entertainment and Phantom Films. Though the film is a starry affair with three leading Hindi film stars and a popular actor from the Punjabi film industry is a part of it, the subject is quite radical. The film aims to bring to the fore the issue of drug addiction in the Indian state of Punjab. After battling several hurdles and controversies, the film finally hits the theatres and one expects an authentic and realistic portrayal of the issue the film deals with and the landscape it is set in.
A migrant from Bihar (Alia Bhatt) who works as a laborer in the fields of Punjab, stumbles upon a packet containing cocaine. She decides to sell it to one of the numerous people addicted to drugs in the state. Being unaware of the value of the drugs she is holding and the kind of people she has whisked it away from, she lands up in trouble and cannot find a way to escape. Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is a rapper/pop star whose addiction to drugs lands him in jail. Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) is one of the several policemen who takes bribes from drug peddlers and lets them smuggle drugs into the state. Preet Sahni is a doctor and activist who treats drug addicts and helps in their rehabilitation.
It is hard to guess the extent to which the film succeeds in getting one closer to reality about the drug mafia in Punjab as this information is not known to the audience. All we know is that it is a fictional feature film and it managed to immerse us in the world it is set in and made us go through a myriad of emotions as we witnessed several characters wreaking havoc in their lives and inviting trouble for people around them under the influence of drugs. The film presents us with a depressing scenario in which the police and the politicians join hands with the drug mafia and help them in doing something that ends up destroying several lives and breaking several families. The director establishes the characters in a jiffy and then, puts them into situations which you would expect to arrive a later in the film. Even as the film stands at two hours and thirty minutes, not a minute of it seems to come across as indulgent. The film walks on a dark terrain and is laced with black humour which goes well with its setting. Also remarkable is the way the director handles the subtle romance between the two leading pairs. You cannot help but smile gleefully when a shy Sartaj takes a step back, turns around, and tells Preet she is the most ‘perfect lady’ he has come across in his life.
Shahid Kapoor, a teetotaller in real life, leaves no stone unturned to familiarize the audience with the hysterical tendencies of a person who cannot do without drugs. Though he gets limited screen time in the first half, he sinks his teeth into the character and owns every scene he is in. Kareena Kapoor Khan’s role might not be as challenging as that of Kapoor’s and Bhatt’s but she lends her character the requisite dignity and goodness which sets it apart in a film filled with complex characters. Alia Bhatt continues to prove what a terrific performer she is with every film. This is probably her most challenging part till date and she rises up to the challenge very well. From getting the accent to maintaining a passive body language that was so essential for the character, she gets everything right. Diljit Dosanjh, apart from having a very strong screen presence, is a solid acting talent. In a way, he is the conventional ‘hero’ of the film. Satish Kaushik’s purposefully over-the-top performance as Tayaji is terrific. Manav Vij is adequately menacing as the senior police inspector. Prabhjyot Singh leaves a mark as Balli.
Abhishek Chaubey’s sensitive handling of the subject deserves to be praised. His eye for detailing coupled with the research he puts in results in an extremely nuanced film. The pace is just right from a gritty thriller and the humour blends in seamlessly into the narrative. With co-writer Sudip Sharma, he builds up a gripping narrative that portrays reality and serves up enough thrills to keep you engaged. Some of the dialogues (Sudip Sharma) are in Punjabi but are easily understandable. The songs (Amit Trivedi) placed at just the right points and the background score (Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor) is equally effective. Right from the camerawork (Rajeev Ravi) to the editing (Meghna Sen) the film comes across as a technically superior product.
‘Udta Punjab’ deals with an issue that needs to be addressed urgently. The film doubles up as a taut thriller and a dark, edgy drama and entertains without resorting to any superficiality. The film portrays grim reality and entertains at the same time. ‘Ishqiya’ (2010), ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ (2014) and ‘Udta Punjab’ (2016) – if these films are any indication, then Abhishek Chaubey is a man who can do no wrong.