Its been a long time since I watched a movie that broke my heart. Bollywood movies in particular often fail to make me emotional because of their formulaic story lines, stock characters and their inability to depict a world that one can truly relate to. Hindi cinema rarely moves away from the norm: romantic or flawed heroes saving the day, titillating dance or ‘item’ numbers, the glamorisation of violence and much too often, typical stereotypes in abundance.
But ‘Udta Punjab’, a film about drug abuse in Punjab, is very different. Directed by Abhishek Chaubey, it finally released on June 17th when Indians went up in arms and demanded freedom of expression. This came after the Indian Central Board of Film Certification was set to make a whopping 89 cuts to the film. Despite the Bombay High Court clearing the movie for release with just one cut, the war on drugs was not over when the movie suffered yet more controversy. Two days before its release, copies of ‘Udta Punjab’ were leaked online, free for all to watch. Many claimed it was intentionally leaked by the Indian censor board. If any movie has had difficulty reaching its audience, it has been ‘Udta Punjab.’
The movie’s brilliance however lies in its stellar script and cast. ‘Udta Punjab’ is proof that a good story and impeccable acting can move people out of the comfort of their homes and into the cinema.”Speak the truth even if your voice shakes” is a quote I associate with its release. And the movie sure does speak many truths.
We follow the lives of four people directly affected by the immeasurable drug problem plaguing Punjab, which has now become the well-established drugs capital of India. It focuses on Sartaj, an officer working for the Punjab police, Preet, a doctor dealing with the treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts in her hospital, Kumari, a woman working in the fields who come across a mysterious package and finally, Tommy Singh, a Punjabi singer addicted to cocaine and facing a downward spiral because of it. ‘Udta Punjab’ reveals how these previously unconnected lives come together because of drugs, and its subsequent impact on their lives.
But why is a movie like ‘Udta Punjab’ so important? For me, the story really hit a nerve. Somewhere deep within me, I was waiting for the Bollywood film industry to make a movie focusing on my hometown, Punjab. And I didn’t want it to appear on screen all frills and beauty, with generic fields of lush green, funny-sounding horns blaring down the GT road, repetitive dialogue about delectable Punjabi cuisine or shots of colourfully-clothed women singing jaunty songs and celebrating Indian festivals. That’s the kind of Punjab the rest of India and the world dreams about, but it is far removed from what Punjab is really like. I’m glad to say this surpassed my expectations.
As someone who is Punjabi and spent less time in England and more in India, any issue that affects my hometown of Punjab is always one that affects me. Drugs has been one of them for a long time. Back home in India, I have family members addicted to drugs, and have heard many stories of the lengths they’ve gone to in order to obtain illegal substances. I know relatives who have overdosed and nearly died, addicts locked up inside their homes with families seeking help from false representatives of God, people who have hidden little sachets containing smack in their pockets for all their life, and even those who have been high and driven my family and I on 8-hour journeys from Delhi to Jalandhar – just because they can. So when it comes to drug abuse in Punjab, you can say it’s a pretty sensitive subject.
What ‘Udta Punjab’ has done for cinema goers like me is simply astounding. I walked away deeply emotional and affected by what I’d seen. The direction was impeccable and the story line brutally honest. At its heart, the movie showed the destruction brought about by the presence of drugs, and the rapid breakdown of Punjab, a state which is in absolute turmoil. The police force are represented as corrupt, calculating and ready to take their cut of 10,000 rupees at the expense of those dying for just one more hit. Helpless and lost are the young boys on the streets spending money either stolen or forcefully taken from their parents in order to shoot up. Women are sex slaves reduced to objects and abused by sadistic drug lords. Politicians mimic reality and offer drugs in exchange for crucial votes that will keep them in power – a power that will continue to allow illegal drugs into the state and which will ultimately kill thousands of people involved in the trade.
Throughout ‘Udta Punjab’ there is a sense of dwindling hope, where trusted members of society become monsters in front of our very eyes. What some would think of as a dystopian nightmare is what Punjab has definitively become. I can see exactly why the Indian censor board was so eager to make cuts to the movie. It doesn’t beat around the bush. Politicians are shown as leading and fuelling the drug abuse in the state, while the police are allies in protecting and assisting criminals in drug trafficking. Women are injected with drugs and gang-raped, blame is deflected and placed on celebrities themselves corrupted by drugs and the youth are demonic, possessed and inconsolable without their daily – if not hourly – fix.
This is how ‘Udta Punjab’ shows my hometown, and I cannot pretend this portrayal is wrong. Some scenes in the movie are so awful that I turned my face away and avoided watching. Beside me, my best friend sat in tears as we came face-to-face with a reality that is still so hard to digest. Hard-hitting. Gut-wrenching. Upsetting. Real. These are just some of the words that come to mind. But most of all, I am embarrassed and ashamed that a place I call home is living with such a crisis, and that nobody is doing anything to stop it. Drug addiction is everywhere, but not more so than in Punjab. The heights the abuse and greed has reached is spiralling out of control. Those who should be helping India to thrive are happily poisoning its name for money and power. Can it ever really end?
‘Udta Punjab’ is bleak and depressing, but for all the right reasons. While hope does come, it almost feels like it’s too late.