Movie Review: Udta Punjab (2016)

UdtaPunjab4 Stars (out of 4)

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Buy the soundtrack at Amazon or iTunes

Several years ago, an affluent community near me realized it had a heroin problem. It did so when a pair of high school students — disturbed by the overdose deaths of three classmates within a single school year — filmed fellow students discussing their own drug use.

The students screened their documentary Neuqua on Drugs for a library auditorium full of horrified school administrators, media, and parents. The adults in the room were shocked that such a problem had festered under their overprotective noses. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in neighborhoods with million-dollar homes. It wasn’t supposed to happen to “good” kids.

Punjab is in the middle of its own drug crisis, without the resources of a wealthy American suburb to fight it, nor the collective will to protect a generation of potential Ivy Leaguers. Writer-director Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab (“Punjab on a High“) provides context and scope for the state’s drug problems in a film that is as entertaining as it is enlightening.

A quartet of lead characters showcase different aspects of the crisis. Musician Tommy (Shahid Kapoor) made a fortune churning out songs celebrating drug culture. Just as it becomes apparent that Tommy’s own drug abuse is hampering his ability to write new music, he’s arrested, the easy scapegoat in a police attempt to look like they are cracking down on drugs.

That’s impossible to do, however, when the cops themselves are profiting from the drug trade. Officer Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh) even complains that police deserve bigger bribes to look the other way when truckloads of narcotics cross the border. Only when Sartaj’s younger brother, Balli (Prabhjyot Singh), is hospitalized from an overdose does the young cop realize his part in fomenting the problem.

Dr. Preeti Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan) is more than happy to place blame on Sartaj and the police. She operates a rehab clinic, so she’s seen first-hand the devastation drugs wreak on individuals, their families, and the community at large. Eager to thank the doctor for helping to dry out Balli and atone for his own profiteering, Sartaj joins forces with Preeti to trace the drugs to their source.

Sartaj locates the region’s main distribution hub, a compound where a young woman nicknamed Bauria (Alia Bhatt) is imprisoned as a sex slave. When Bauria found a packet of powder — thrown over the Pakistani border discus-style — in the field where she worked, she’d hoped to sell it and get rich. Only the intended recipients of the packet found out, capturing her, hooking her on drugs, and using her to service clients, including the police chief, who happens to be Sartaj’s cousin.

Everything and everyone in Udta Punjab is connected, right down to the poster of Tommy hanging on Balli’s wall. In the same way that the character’s lives entwine, so do the region’s fortunes. It only takes a few corrupt cops and politicians to sustain a catastrophe that keeps the beds at Preeti’s clinic full.

Chaubey’s story — co-written by Sudip Sharma — wisely embeds the drug crisis within the purview of ordinary life. Crops still need to be harvested, and love still blossoms, as it does between Sartaj and Preeti. His crush on the beautiful doctor develops quickly, but he’s too shy to express his feelings, intimidated as he is by her intelligence. He gathers the intel, but she has to explain to him (and thus the audience, thankfully) the intersection between government officials, chemical manufacturers, and the gangsters controlling the drug trade. She grows increasingly charmed by his enthusiasm and dedication.

Rooting the narrative within a real-life framework requires room for humor as well, tinted appropriately dark given the subject matter. Chaubey juxtaposes funny moments with grim ones, occasionally blending the comic with the tragic in the same scene. For example, a singer croons, “Her smile makes the flowers bloom,” over a shot of Bauria vomiting.

The film’s performances are likewise balanced between the straightforward deliveries of Kapoor Khan and Dosanjh, and the wilder turns of Bhatt and Kapoor. The horrors of Bauria’s circumstances are made clear but not dwelt upon, focusing instead on the character’s strength and ingenuity, movingly depicted by Bhatt. Kapoor plays Tommy with a manic energy that doesn’t dissipate even when the singer is sober.

Chaubey’s film is perfectly balanced, in every respect. That makes the Censor Board controversy surrounding Udta Punjab‘s release seem even more ridiculous. There’s nothing in the film that comes close to glorifying drug use, so attempts to stall its release with demands that every reference to Punjab be removed is simply an attempt by vested interests to deny that Punjab has a drug problem. People in my own community and thousands of Punjabi citizens know the truth: while politicians bury their heads in the sand, people are dying.


15 thoughts on “Movie Review: Udta Punjab (2016)

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  2. Dev

    Hi Kathy,

    Finally a great bollywood movie and a great review as well and deserves the 4/4 stars…i personally would rate it like 85/100- Excellent….this movie definitely deserves all the hype and focuses on a very important and major situation currently in Punjab…i actually went to see it on back to back days on the weekend which is very rare for a hindi movie and i haven’t done for many movies, probably since P.K.

    Mahesh Bhatt should be very proud of his daughter Alia Bhatt who has consistently been amazing from one performance to the next from Highway to 2 States to Kapoor & sons to Udta Punjab….I loved the song Dar Da Da Daase re….its good to see at least 10 great movies coming out almost every year from bollywood….

    As far as the movie situation in Canada, there are only a couple of theaters here that show bollywood movies in the Toronto area, however due to the high demand and large indian population in the Toronto area, those movies are packed at least during the first week….i was actually surprised to see Sultan was sold out in the its first two shows….If its a movie from either Aamir Khan, SRK, Salman, Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kumar…they are almost guaranteed to be packed at least the first week…however some other movies do not fill up such as Wazir, Te3n even with the great Amitabh Bachchan carrying the load….basically the audience it seems doesn’t care if its a great movie or not, they watch the movie based on stars not substance….Also, it seems there are a lot more punjabi movies that are released here in Canada compared to the US…for example movies like Sardaar Ji, and Beeba Boys…i m not sure they released in the US.

    Pls. let me know if you have any other questions regd. the bollywood movies releasing in Canada.


    1. Kathy

      Thanks, Dev! (Totally agree with you about Alia, BTW.) Add to my List of Things I Would Do If I Was Rich “Open a movie theater in Toronto.” Are most of the theaters that show Indian movies near you independent Indian-only theaters, or are they major chains? It would behoove any of the chains there to give at least two weeks to movies starring any of the actors you mentioned, since the per-theater returns are so good. Just look at Sultan’s first weekend:

      Here’s how the Indian movie market is divided across Chicago: one Indian-only theater that shows movies in all languages; two chain theaters for Hindi films; two chain theaters for Tamil/Telugu films; one chain theater for Punjabi films. There are another 6-8 chain theaters that will show Indian films periodically, but mostly just the big Bollywood movies. It’s rare to see a Punjabi film in more than one theater here.

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  9. Shree

    The mesmerizing soundtrack by Amit Trivedi sure adds to the cult status this movie achieved in 2016. Relevant lyrics and some awesome tunes, very underrated soundtrack.

    Shahid Kapoor has come a long way from doing music videos for the Aryans, PK must be real proud!!!

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