“O Chitta ve, O Chitta ve, Kaiyaan nu hai khush kitta ve”.
This line from Udta Punjab declares its intent loud and clear. “Chitta” is colloquial for cocaine: In conjunction with “gora”, it denotes white. That the deadly drug has burrowed deep into Punjab’s veins is well-documented. But it has taken a feature film to show us in graphic detail just how deep the cut is.
It is the reality of today’s Punjab, and a terror that could turn out to be more lethal than that which rocked the state in the ’80s and ’90s.
My first reaction, when I finished watching the film, was that it does exactly what it sets out to do: Show the “drug problem” in Punjab, using a bunch of characters to channel its message. In fact, it is such a message-y film that it can and should be propagated as Bollywood’s version of the classic nostrum: Say No To Drugs.
The biggest strength of the film is that it speaks in such a bracing tongue, the words tripping off its high-on-substance Punjabi rapper-rocker star played by Shahid Kapoor, as well as the other people who make up the supply chain. The language, bristling with invective, never feels gratuitous, and instantly communicates that it is real, not constructed, dialogue.
The last time a film spoke in such a robust tongue was the Anurag Kashyap-directed Gangs Of Wasseypur: Quite aptly, Kashyap is one of the producers on Udta Punjab. That a film laced with drugs-and-gaalis would run afoul of the deeply conservative Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), was a given. But if the cuts had been implemented, the film would have been mutilated and unrecognisable.
The stalemate was broken only after Kashyap and his partners went in appeal to the Bombay High Court. The honourable judges may have found themselves in a highly unusual place — with their names imprinted on the film’s censor certificate — but they cleared the film with only one cut.
While the decision of the court, which included a wagging finger at the CBFC reminding it that its job was to certify, not censor, is welcome, the precedent it has set is dodgy. Why should a court have to step in for a job that is the board’s?
WATCH | Udta Punjab Mashup
What if the judges had been on the same page as the CBFC Chairperson Pahlaj Nihalani who believes that films (not just Udta Punjab) should be devoid of names and places and designations, which could render anything and anyone In Bad Light?
Everyone can breathe easy, because even as the film shows politicians and policemen complicit in trafficking and trade, the manner in which it is done is fuzzy. It could have been much sharper, and would have added to the film’s power. Diljit Dosanjh, the Punjab superstar making his Bollywood debut, plays a cop on the take. He confesses to being a small cog in the wheel; the bigger guns are seen only through the distancing prism of TV screens. The words “MPs” and “MLAs” are mentioned, but no names are attached. And the biggest culprit shown is a family which lives on the outskirts and controls the local chain. The only shocker is that an elderly woman is part of the “ganda dhanda”.
Kareena Kapoor Khan shows up to lend the film star power and its moral centre. She plays a doctor who runs a rehab clinic, ticking off the cop and marching off to track the bad guys. But the character who shows just how devastating drugs can be is played by Alia Bhatt. Her hockey-stick wielding Bihari migrant, whom we see working in the fields, soon finds herself caught up with the vicious suppliers. The systematic brutalisation of her body even as she clings to her sanity and spirit by a thread, is harrowing.
If the film had tracked her story a little more, and been a little less busy in treading the familiar path of rock stars and their hangers-on, spilling powder and sniffing it straight up, it would have been outstanding.
As it is, it flies. The very fact that it is in the theatres today is a matter of celebration. It is a victory for those who create, those who are artists, those whose job is to challenge and provoke us.
Udta Punjab is out on a wing and a prayer. And a lick of “chitta ve”.