Let me begin with a caveat – Udta Punjab is not a Hindi movie – nor is it meant for general audience in India for it cannot be understood lest appreciated by all. It is a dark and intense narrative and yet incredibly funny, that had me chuckling at times or weeping a tear, much to the confusion of others around me in a theater in western India – far far away from the land and its stories that it seeks to mirror without bias and without prejudice.
One of the very many lines in the movie, Udta Punjab, that leaves you stunned, shocked for words, and gasping for more, and of course stated in its intense rawness, while defining Punjab of today – “… aithe zameen banjar te log kanjar …” – “this is the barren wasteland where only pimps and prostitutes live.”
Watching the film was like encountering several painful memories for me that lay usually repressed – whether it be of an addicted relative who passed away eating ‘tablets’ as my Dad put it when I was 9 years old, or of a sensitive poetic friend who drank himself to death for he could not confront his own role and participation in a gang-rape of a serf when he was an adoloscent, or of hordes and gangs of ‘kakajis’ – the generation of feudal landlords who succumbed to alcoholic waste, as they invested energies into wanton violence, of lost and wasted men who took to terrorism and killed with a vengeance.
Yes I encountered my adoloscence and my early adulthood in a land that was and is still bleeding, and for all the controversy around it, Udta Punjab lives up to its promise for me on many counts.
- The film rejects the notion that the saint-warrior identity of sikhs as immortal and unassailable and regardless of the socio-political and socio-economic context.
There was a time, when an elder Sikh would evoke safety, well being, and humility in you – an avuncular, kindhearted, and benign who would be ready to fiercely protect you from danger, a generous host who would love to feed you with stories, jokes, and of course good food and drink – this image is shattered in the first few minutes of the movie.
The Warrior-saint is dead and passe – and what replaces the warrior saint are a kaleidoscope of other identities – the cold assassin, the weak dependent child, the blindly colluding smooth-sailor, the ugly narcissistic orphan, the manipulator, and the purveyor of darkness and death with no remorse.
The gentle dance between masculinity and femininity within the warrior-saint polarity within no longer exists – its replaced by hyper-masculinity of the rapist, the macho alpha male, the gang and the cult, and just emptiness. There is a deadness in the eyes of many characters – of zombies walking through the wasteland – who seek lifeblood through drugs and manic displays of aggression.
The movie posits an important question – what happened to a land that was at its peak of wealth, prosperity, culture a few decades ago, and is now being compared to Mexico.
- The film refuses to attack just the politician or the corrupt police or all such nexuses and connections between the powerful elite. It actually centers around four narratives – of men and women heroically fighting self-doubt, fragility, vulnerabilities, and demons within. The movie begins with a bhangra-rapster, celebrated for his lyrics and antics centered around the world of drugs. Calling himself Tommy Singh – the Gabru (Gabru in Punjabi means the young virile man), the musician who is a “London-returned” idol of the young trippers and grapples with his own journey.
Tommy, the hypermasculine, muscular, gun-totting, cocaine snorting, counter-dependent rebel onstage marketing a philosophy of surrendering to inane waste to thousands of clueless youths in Punjab, discovers that he is actually a scared ‘fuddu’, another punjabi word that intensely communicates the the loser or rather the asshole adjective when he is sober. Shahid Kapoor, play the pathetic loser to the hilt – wanting to die when he gets to see himself in the mirror – he even inscribes the word ‘Fuddu’ on his head, and in all this madness, he recieves a wonderful gift.
I don’t wish to be plot spoiler – but some of the scenes are hilariously terrifying. There is a mad chase between a Mercedes, and Tommy in pursuit in a Range Rover, in the narrow roads of Amritsar, spewing expletives and rage … scenes that remind me of ‘geris’ and of ‘chases’ in the past – of chasing women in a car / bus or wanting to beat up the next village gang…
Tommy, in his identity of self-deprecating fuddu, delights you with many a surprises – for example in the second half, he renders a beautiful song written by Shiv Batalvi (Ek Kuddi jidda naa Mohabbat – also sung by Rabbi) to a crippled dope smuggler, while being chased by smugglers and wanting to rescue his own muse. It is a far cry from the songs around cocaine and cock et al.
The other protagonist is ASI Sartaj Singh, a corrupt cop mentored by his own elder cousin and fellow cop, and who using his orphan-hood as an excuse, choosing to survive and if this means colluding with a corrupt system then so be it. Sartaj soon discovers that his younger brother is an addict as well as his own politics of collusion. If Tommy’s story is around bizarre and dark humor, Sartaj’s narrative takes many a poignant turn from an angry man to revealing his softness and femininity till he takes on the warrior role in the very end. Sartaj looks on to the face of the lost empty addicted world with a certain compassion and a burning rage to eliminate it. He works with his own impotency, and seeks to discover new means. In the end, he is torn between his own familial links and his need to right the wrong – so to say.
Both the men are orphans, and another orphan in the guise of a young woman from Bihar comes into the tale – except that she is tough as nails despite her youth, and resilient as hell. She does not reveal her name till the very end and is usually called the Bihari mad girl. Alia Bhatt plays the role to a beautiful intensity, retaining her identity as a rural poor destitute woman, working in the fields of Punjab, and fighting her way through drugs and sexual abuse. She speaks bhojpuri beautifully, and despite her vulnerability and victimhood, comes across a pillar of strength and resolve. Her conversations with Tommy are hilarious as well as heart wrenching. She challenges his self-pity, but does not wear her own victimhood as if its her own identity.
The writers of this movie need to be complimented for bringing in the Bihari angle to a film on Punjab – for the state of Punjab today is densely populated with migrant labor that has been abused to till the land which as once owned and tilled by the Punjabi himself. In the past 30 odd years, many farmers have chosen to stay away from hard work, and have leveraged poorer migrants to large extent. This has changed the identity of the state – many of the Bihari migrants, having settled down, and who were once veritable serfs, are now representing local polity in a conflicted society.
The final narrative is of a woman doctor who fights addiction – another strong woman who is willing to fight the corrupt and the powerful. Kareena Kapoor plays one of those few roles, where she looks an accomplished actress – I loved her in Omkara – a tribute to Othello. If the other three protagonists display their dark shadows, the doctor looks resplendent in an angelic white.
Both the women symbolize hope and strength.
As the film states – the real heroic opportunity falls in front of the abuser and the addict – will he or she stand up?
- The language, a much controversial issue, remains what it is in reality – crude, raw, intense, and vulgar for most parts. I am so glad that Udta Punjab wishes to mirror what is, as opposed to other films turning out plots and texts that are gentile, gracious and so sweet. To the non-Punjabi, the language can be a shock and put-off. To someone who has lived there – it only reveals that the beautiful language of the past, replete with urdu and hindi, is a phantasy of the past.
My first experience of Punjab as a young adoloscent was to be assaulted with the crudeness of the language – I remember cringing and withdrawing for the Punjabi used in my home sounded like a foreign tongue.
However while lets say the French get away with their intensity and rawness at times, the average Indian feels violated. But the same language contains some very dark humor. The funniest line for me was to compare the derriere of Jennifer Lopez and Punjabi women whlie comparing Punjab with Mexico.
- Udta Punjab does not offer your traditional happy endings – it does more than that – it gives a semblance of hope in a state that has seen years of seditious politics and civil war, of a certain unrelenting decadence, and violence.
It left me also very sad as far as my Sikh identity goes – a day later I was weeping inconsolably with Mamta – as we explored a seemingly vacuous legacy from the state itself. I survived my 6 years in Punjab at the height of terrorism, by being and remaining the outsider, and thanking my stars that I did not get entrenched. Perhaps the movie was a reminder of how lucky some of us were and yet also triggered a guilt for cutting our roots and moving on.
Perhaps the movie was a reminder of how lucky some of us were and yet also triggered a guilt for cutting our roots and moving on. The land that I and many others come is now steadily becoming a wasteland and I am perhaps the Udta Panjabi (the Punjabi in flight)