It took you three years to make Udta Punjab and a month-long battle with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for it to be cleared. Did you anticipate any of this?
Making the film was tough on us because I was already aware that it wouldn’t allow us to operate on a huge budget. There were challenges throughout, but nothing could have prepared us for what happened in the last month. The CBFC chairperson, Pahlaj Nihalani, is only a part of the problem. The real issue is with the functioning. The processes are opaque, they need to be transparent and vice versa. For instance, the negotiations between the committee and the filmmaker are fair — even Alfred Hitchcock is known to have watched a film with the certification committee and defended his vision — but it needs to happen behind closed doors. In India, this information is out in the public, whereas the bureaucratic process that should be transparent is a complete enigma. We don’t know where, how and when the certificate will be given to us or the idea that has gone behind its approval or rejection.
With Udta Punjab, you have completely changed track in terms of genre and milieu.
The first two films (Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya) were rooted in a milieu I have some understanding of. When I first met Sudip Sharma, my co-writer, in 2013, I was reading a lot of literature on drug abuse and policies, such as Chasing the Scream (by British journalist Johann Hari). There have been changes in the policy in the West, but the problem persists everywhere, including India. But my idea takes root in the fact that India has had almost no film on drugs. We see traces of it in Jaanbaaz (1986) and Dum Maaro Dum (2011) but largely, drug smuggling had been an excuse for making action films. In Shahenshah (1988), Amrish Puri looks at Prem Chopra and holds up a small pouch: ‘Yeh brown sugar hai’. That’s been the extent of showing drugs in films. I thought this film might be a good way to start a dialogue. But the grain of the idea wasn’t Punjab at all. It was set all over the country in a multi-track narrative. However, we realised taking the story all over would make it too sprawling so we decided to concentrate on Punjab.
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Was the decision to set it in Punjab driven by logistics?
We had some idea of what we could do with the story. Tommy’s character was initially a DJ. We didn’t want to have a narrative that travels too much, we wanted to keep it tight-paced. Going to Punjab for research pretty much changed the landscape of the narrative. We met a lot of health professionals, cops and activists; we also visited rehab centres. The story was made there and Tommy became a bhangra artiste.
A large part of the drug problem is because of the porous borders. Does that feature in your story?
The film is set near the border for that reason, but in a fictional town called Jashanpura. So the key places in the film are all fictional and we mention only a few places like Amritsar.
If the towns are all fictional, what did the CBFC object to?
I am not sure how to answer that (shrugs). At one point during the certification process, we were told we cannot name these places and I pointed out that, in the film, these places are fictional.
Does Shahid Kapoor’s character represent the Punjabi music scene?
Punjabi music is quite unique in the sense that it has its own subculture — music that is influenced by artistes from Canada or the UK, folk music and even Asian underground. These genres have their own stars, names that go beyond Mika Singh or Yo Yo Honey Singh, names that we may not even be aware of, but are famous across the world with the Punjabi community. If you drive through Punjab, you rarely hear Hindi music. Tommy is a hugely popular bhangra artiste and, as he says in the film, “Asian Underground number three maara hai maine.” He isn’t based on one artiste. We explore the nature of the drug problem through him, what happens to him and what lessons he learns.
The music, however, isn’t quite like what we hear in Bollywood.
We had two options while making the music — we could either do the usual or give this character something unique, which will also explain why he is so popular. Most artistes from the UK and Canada do a lot of hip hop, so we made Tommy bring in influences of electronic music and trance to bhangra. Songs like Chitta ve and Vadhiya belong to that mix. But almost all the songs in the film are Tommy’s — it’s as if we have created an album for him — though we don’t say that explicitly. Even the softer ones, like Ikk kudi, a ballad penned by Shiv Kumar Batalvi, or Hans nach le, which is folksy, carries forward the essence of Tommy’s music. During the course of the film, because Tommy changes as a person, the nature of the songs change, but the essence is retained. There are hardly any songs performed because that would have hampered the pace of the film.
Do each of the key characters have an independent track?
Tommy is an underground artiste who has lived part of his life in the UK and is a big star. He has a drug problem, of course. Alia Bhatt plays a migrant labourer from Bihar. On our visits, we saw small hamlets of migrant labourers from Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of UP in the middle of picturesque fields. Alia belongs to that world while Diljit (Dosanjh) plays a cop. Kareena Kapoor, as Dr Preet Sahni, works at a rehab centre. During our research, we met a doctor who could have been earning millions in a city, but chose to work in Punjab instead. He drives 50 km every day from Amritsar to the centre and sees about 400 patients each day. He gave us a lot of information about the drug problem there, some of which was very disheartening. He told us that heroin addiction isn’t a malaise but a condition — it can never be cured, only managed. When we asked him why he was doing this job, he said matter-of-factly, “Someone has to do it.” He inspired Kareena’s character. They all have their own journeys but their tracks criss-cross and meet in the end.
The pace of the film must have been new for you because both Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya tend to linger.
The film is breathless, because what do you do when you do drugs? It makes you crazy. We couldn’t give time to establish characters, you know them from the get-go. Their graph and nuances emerge through the storytelling.
Casting has always been your strength. How did you pull off the coup for Udta Punjab?
I have mostly been lucky. Because this film was made on a tight budget, we thought we will cast one star and the rest will be newer actors. Shahid was suggested by Phantom and I was elated when he came on board — he had done a fab job in Haider. We auditioned extensively for Alia’s character but didn’t find a fit until Shahid helped us bring her on board. For Dr Preet, we needed a Punjabi-looking, mature actor. We took time to get access to her but once she read the script, Kareena told us she was on board because of what the film is trying to say. And Diljit, well, was the best fit.
CBFC aside, what were the other challenges during the film’s making?
We were shooting the film at real locations, mostly in rural and semi-urban areas around Amritsar, with stars. Managing crowds was one aspect of it. I had some idea about how popular Diljit is in Punjab, but not its scale. He is like Elvis there and it was impossible to shoot even guerilla style. Even a simple act like getting him to ride a scooter was a challenge. Although her bits were the toughest as she runs around a lot in the film, Alia was the only one who went pretty much unnoticed. She had lost a lot of weight for the role and wore rags most of the time. The editing took another year because of the multi-track narrative. I like to play with tone.
Could you please elaborate on that?
I grew up on a staple of Bollywood films. Of course, over the years, I have watched a lot of world cinema and that has influenced me too, but I don’t like their technical obsession with tonality. Bollywood is my pedigree. We play with tones like no one does — comedy, song and dance. I knew I could take those risks and layer it — there’s always space for a tender moment or a quip in a hard-hitting scene. I didn’t want the film to be too serious in that sense. But I had to do it without trivialising the subject or altering the pace. This happens chiefly in writing but also with editing. I do it not to make it commercial but because I don’t know any other way of making cinema.
You’ve also launched your production house with Honey Trehan.
After this, I am producing a period film directed by Konkana Sengupta, Death in the Gunj. Making Udta Punjab has taught me several lessons as a producer, especially at the censorship level. I know that with my next films, I will be very cautious of how I work the narrative. What upset me most with this experience, however, is the allegation that the film was backed by a political party. We are all political — in fact, even our decision to take an auto or a bus is political. But that doesn’t mean I am interested in your electoral politics. Artistes are special because they educate and entertain, they should be given love and respect. Any regime that has attempted to curb the voice of its artistes has failed, that’s the truth of life and we should remember that.