The hoopla has ended, the dust has settled and all we are left with is a very curious product in the form of a film attempting to shed light on Punjab’s rampant drug epidemic. Much to director Abhishek Chaubey’s chagrin, the controversies surrounding Udta Punjab‘s supposed explicit content by the Indian film censor board (CBFC) are far more thought-provoking and say much more about India and Punjab than the film ever tries to. Make no mistake of it, Udta Punjab is a bad film buoyed only by a few performances that linger in the mind long after exiting the theater hall.
The reason being that the film suffers from a common Bollywood problem – the second half slump. While the kinetic first half is contagious not least because of Trivedi’s feverishly weird soundtrack, the second half is a party killer.
That’s not to say that there aren’t flashes of brilliance scattered throughout its two and a half hour duration, chief among them the soliloquy Alia Bhatt’s character, a victim of human trafficking, delivers that is naked and bare to the bone. Then something comes along however that ruins it all be it a Bollywood gimmick or a deus-ex-machina worthy of one of the many piece of shit films that Prakash Jha just loves to inflict on us.
Make no mistake of it, Udta Punjab a bad film buoyed only by a few performances that linger in the mind long after exiting the theater hall. Alia Bhatt’s rawness, for example, is so palpable, it transcends Bollywood.
Like Prakash Jha’s piece of shit films, Udta Punjab has delusions of grandeur, it wants to tell us about the plight of Punjab and the dangerous effects of substance abuse but all it does is tell a less than credible story not unlike millions of others. But unlike Prakash Jha’s piece of shit films, there are a few redeeming factors namely the aforementioned soundtrack, a collection of morbid psych-pop songs the likes of which we haven’t heard since The Eurythmics’ legendary soundtrack to the film adaptation of 1984, and the actors.
Unlike Shahid Kapoor – we’re all growing weary of his Jim Carrey-esque antics- Kareena Kapoor Khan’s restrained, minimal make-up performance as a loving rehabilitation doctor is a quiet storm. Hers is a minor, no fanfare role that should remind cinethusiast’s of Mariah Carey’s turn in Precious where the world saw one of the greatest pop divas of history shedding her furs and diamonds to play the role of a social worker caring for underprivileged, inner city families.
This is undoubtedly one of the best decisions Mrs. Kapoor Khan has ever made in her career. It’s clear she believes in the old theater adage “there are no small roles, only small actors”. With this role, Mrs. Kapoor Khan casts aside her celebrity, steps back and allows others to shine all for the sake of art.
Alia Bhatt also lets go of her strong brand image to take on a role most of her contemporaries would turn down in a New York Minute. Few thought that cute-as-a-button Alia could channel the troubles of a Bihari field worker turned victim of human trafficking, but she does. Her rawness is so palpable, it transcends Bollywood.
Although there are no male leads here as the women are undoubtedly the heroes, one male character who stands from the fold is Balli, a drug-addicted Punjabi teenager, played with surprising conviction and nuance by young actor Prabhjyot Singh. It’s no small wonder that Chaubey ensured that he is the last character we see and hear as the credits roll.
One can’t help but think what would have happened had Chaubey decided to center the entire film around him and instead of mounting a schlocky, cliche-ridden Masala film, create an intimate portrait of an Indian teenage boy suffering under the influence of narcotics. The results that would yield would be harrowing and, possibly, impactful.