Udta Punjab

udta-punjab-poster

After a very wordy anti-drugs and pro-Punjab disclaimer riddled with spelling and grammar errors which may or may not indicate its sincerity, Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab opens with an intense, crass, loud and proud drug anthem.

Visually strong and often confronting, Rajeev Ravi’s high impact imagery is balanced with scenes of delicate loveliness. The take seems to be that Punjab is turning into a place with the morals of a Mexico or, ahem, Goa. Packages of heroin are making their way across the border nightly, and dubious shipments of pharmaceuticals are waved past by police. We see a young girl, one of many out of state workers coming to labour on farms. The divide between the worlds of privilege and subsistence is evident, and the film doesn’t shy away from the gory, violent, consequences of disrupting the status quo. It’s powerful stuff, and quite gripping. Unfortunately the second half revolves around unnecessary and unconvincing romance just when the main plot should have been in laser sharp focus to bring it all together.

Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) takes the sex, drugs, and rock n roll mantra to heart. Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh) is a mid-rank cop with flexible morals, happy to overlook the drugs as long as he gets his cut. Dr Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan) specialises in treating addicts and wants to cut the problem off at the source. The nameless girl finds a package in the fields, and thinks she can make some fast money. The film shows the close but not quite intersecting paths characters take, passing each other without a blink or occupying the same space at different times. There is definitely a pervasive feeling that some lives are held cheap and existence for many people has become the wait for death. The sense of connection and community, what affects one will affect many, is clearly drawn out.

Sartaj’s brother Balli ODs on the drug that Sartaj had waved through a checkpoint. In the blink of an eye Sartaj becomes a crusader for justice and decides to help Preet take on the system. The girl is forced into prostitution and drug dependency, and one of the men she has to service is Sartaj’s boss. Tommy attempts to get cleaned up but his own friends get him using again, and fans have no interest in a more honest, introspective star. They want their bad boy back. After a near riot, Tommy runs away and encounters the girl, now also a fugitive. Sartaj falls for Preet, Tommy falls for the girl. All for love and love for all. Apparently all you need is a girlfriend and you will immediately develop moral fibre and a resistance to highly addictive substances. Poor Balli is locked in a treatment cell and all but forgotten, with no magical insta-love to rescue him.

I’m sure Shahid wasn’t at a loss for examples for playing a coked up celebrity. Tommy comes across as a very naughty boy, not a complex or dangerous man in the grip of addiction. Is it bad that in one of his meltdowns I found the elaborate toilet lid more compelling than the dialogue? He thinks rapping about his cock is HILARIOUS. When he ends up in jail, two young boys in the cell perform one of his hits before quietly admitting they killed their mother because she wouldn’t give them money for drugs. Shahid shows Tommy’s growing fear and uncertainty as he realises he is in serious trouble and tries to get off the gear. It’s when Shahid reverts to his bunny-teeth boy in love shtick that he seems most comfortable, and yet nothing made much sense. How can such a famous man with a memorably bad haircut travel across country with no money and not be recognised, even when wearing one of his own crew t-shirts? And what about the girl, who we are expected to believe could fully and easily recover from the trauma of being a sex slave and a drug addict just because Tommy likes her. And don’t mention the ballad.

Alia Bhatt’s performance is excellent, and reminded me a little of her role in Highway. She has minimal dialogue as the Bihari farm girl and even less as a sex slave. Her character is smart and strong, but the brutality of her life with the drug barons is overwhelming and Alia lets her expressive eyes go dull. The girl doesn’t ever give up on herself though. It’s a little disappointing that Chaubey seems to think Tommy is the cure for her, and sad for her that she will acquire a manchild for her troubles. And I could have slapped someone for the oh so clever name they reveal at the end of the film. I was half expecting her birthday to be on April 20th.

Kareena’s approach to Preet is less makeup = Serious Lady Doctor, plus coquettish hair tossing and simpering. Unfortunately her lightweight characterisation exposes her weaknesses when compared to the rest of the cast, and then her character turns stupid. In a film about the social cost of drugs, should a scene where Sartaj is accidentally injected with the same drug that nearly killed his brother be turned into comedy? And should Preet and Sartaj be all awkward about the dopey flirting and forget the medical issue of someone having ingested a highly addictive drug made in a shed who knows where with who knows what chemicals and being stuck with a needle that may have had someone else’s blood in it and so exposing the injectee to Hepatitis or HIV? No. Why would a doctor worry about that? It’s a shame as Preet had potential to be interesting and she certainly had the only fully operational moral compass.

I’ve sat through the trailer for Sardarji a few times now so having Diljit Dosanjh actually in the film I had gone to see was almost disorienting. He delivers a competent performance, and tries to generate some one-sided chemistry with Kareena. His character in some ways is the most complex, although the film moves on too quickly from moments of epiphany, self-loathing, and despair in favour of simplistic love and revenge.

The large supporting cast is good but while I recognised some familiar faces, I couldn’t put names to everyone. I took a violent dislike to one of the girl’s captors in particular, and wanted to get my Tight Slap Administrator gloves on with some of Tommy’s cousins. The production values are high, and I can appreciate the effort and care given to the visual design and soundtrack. Amit Trivedi has gone beyond his usual tweedly guitars and tried to extend Tommy’s character through his featured songs.

Maybe if you see the film as an allegory this second half works a little better, to a point. The girl is perhaps a representation of salt of the earth Punjab tempted by easy money and being screwed over by the drug cartels and cops, Tommy is the privileged class who can largely avoid consequences, Sartaj is the system that has neglected its duty to protect the people and uphold the law, and Balli is at the end of the line with no one to pass the blame or damage on to. But Chaubey leaves us with the message that all you need is romantic love. And a gun.

I was disappointed by the direction Udta Punjab took after such a powerful start. But I am happy to regard my ticket as a contribution to supporting and encouraging filmmakers’ freedom of artistic expression after all the ridiculous censorship shenanigans.

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Ishqiya (2010)

Ishqiya has a top cast and with the writing and directing team of Abhishek Chaubey and Vishal Bharadwaj, the story and script are top quality as well. This is Abhishek Chaubey’s first directorial venture although he worked with Vishal Bharadwaj on a number of his films as assistant, most recently Kaminey and Omkara. The screenplay here shows many of the same elegantly clever twists and turns, and there is plenty of snappy action. All of the actors make the most of their roles with some excellent performances, and it all adds up to a great film.

The film tells the story of two thieves, Khalujaan and Babban who are on the run after stealing from their boss Mushtaq. Khalujaan and Babban are uncle and nephew, and there is the added complication that Mushtaq is Khalujaan’s brother in law.  Khalujaan tries to rely on this connection to escape Mushtaq’s murderous plans for revenge but it seems that just being family isn’t enough – not when you’ve stolen from Mushtaq at any rate. After being caught by Mushtaq and his merry band of thugs near the start of the film, the pair manage to escape by means of some witty repartee and good team work. There is an interesting subtitle error here. I am quite sure that Mushtaq says kutta and really does mean ‘dog’, although possibly bog makes just as much sense.

Since they can’t find anyone willing to risk the wrath of Mushtaq and take them in, they end up planning an escape toNepal. When they end up at the border town of Gorakhpur, they decide to seek help from an old accomplice Vidyadhar Verma. However on arriving at Verma’s house, they find out that he has been killed in a tragic accident, and end up dealing with his widow Krishna instead. This creates an interesting dynamic as Krishna plays the two men against each other while she plots to use them for her own ends. Meanwhile Mushtaq turns up yet again, and in a final attempt to get enough money to pay for their freedom, Khalujaan and Babban join forces withKrishnato kidnap a local business tycoon. They plan to use the ransom money to pay off Mushtaq, but Krishna has other ideas and their kidnapping ends up with some unexpected results.

The film opens with Krishna and her husband at home and in bed as he teases and cajoles her while she tries to get him to surrender to the police. Although the couple have been kept apart by Verma’s kidnapping schemes they seem to be very much in love and Krishna obviously misses her husband while he is away on his various criminal activities. Abhishek Chaubey has cleverly drawn Krishna and Verma’s relationship in detail in just a few minutes in these opening scenes and this attention to detail in the characterisation is carried out throughout the film. For example, when we first meet Khalujaan and Babban they are celebrating their escape from Mushtaq with the loot, and just from the way they are dressed and the way they dance and celebrate, we have a lot of information about their respective characters.

The more sensible and level-headed of the two is Khalujaan, ably played by Naseeruddin Shah. He’s older, although not necessarily wiser, especially if he has had a bit too much to drink. Despite his criminal tendencies he is a romantic at heart and on meeting Krishna he praises her singing, helps her with the cooking and indulges in idealistic fantasies of the two of them together. After their first meeting he has a good look at himself in the mirror and realising that he looks his age, resorts to using some of Krishna’s kohl to darken his hair and beard to make himself look more attractive to her. It’s all so very human and natural and is just one of the ways that Abhishek Chaubey brings his characters to life. Khalujaan is also more focused on the goal of getting away with the loot, while Babban (Arshad Warsi) votes for killing Mushtaq and getting on with spending the money and enjoying life.

As Khalujaan romances Krishna from afar, Babban eyes her speculatively from almost their first meeting. He’s much more direct and it’s very telling that his first visit in Gorakhpur is the brothel. He is all male, hot-blooded and very ready and willing for action. Despite knowing that his uncle has fallen in love with Krishna, he makes a play for her too. However, even with his ‘love them and leave them’ attitude he ends up under her spell, and falls in love for probably the first time in his life. His betrayal by Krishna seems to cut much deeper than with his uncle, perhaps because this is his first love.

With his kohl rimmed eyes and knowing looks Arshad Warsi revels in the character of Babban. To some extent he revisits a little of his lovable rogue character of Circuit from the Munna Bhai series, but Babban is much more cynical and a harder persona. He has no qualms about accusing Krishna of stealing their money, or using violence to force her to reveal her plans later on. But at the same time his heartbreak when he realises he has been betrayed is very real and he genuinely seems to take an interest in Nandu (Alok Kumar), a local boy he meets at Krishna’s house.

The two men are very easily seduced and led by the enigmatic Krishna. Vidya Balan does an excellent job of portraying Krishna as a woman of many faces. She starts off as the woman in love but with her husband’s death she seems to change and becomes aloof and mysterious, at least until she meets up with Khalujaan and Babban and seems to come to life again. She knows exactly what she wants and how to achieve it, and will allow nothing to stop her reaching her goal.Krishna is a very strong female character, even if she does turn a little crazy and vengeful at the end, and it’s great to see Vidya Balan in a role which suits her skills as an actress. She doesn’t have too much dialogue and in many scenes conveys most of her emotions through her expressions alone, which she does very well.

The interactions between the three leads are the crux of the film, but the other characters all have their place. Salman Shahid is coldly efficient as the omnipresent Mushtaq who has the knack of turning up at the right place every time. Rajesh Sharma as businessman Kamalkant Kakkad and Gauri Malla as his mistress Mamta have some comedic scenes together, particularly when Babban and Krishna first see them indulging in a little role playing to the wonderful Aa Jaane Jaan from Intaquam. (Another film about a woman out for revenge and Mamta nods to the Helen connection with all those feathers.)

There are some beautifully shot scenes of village life in the film and the cinematography by Mohana Krishna Agapu makes the most of the local countryside. While there aren’t any big song and dance numbers, the songs by Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar are excellent and fit well into the film. As well as the film soundtrack, Babban has a tendency to burst into song when he’s happy, and there are some fun renditions of songs from Chak De India and Om Shanti Om. There are so many great moments in this film, both comedic and some very good drama as well. With all the twists and turns the film never drags and Abhishek Chaubey even manages to add in a couple of explosions to add to the mayhem. A very well made film with excellent performances from the three leads – I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel. 4 ½ stars.