After the hype and hoopla, where does “Udta Punjab” stand? Answer: In a very respectable position considering the Phantom Films track record (from whom the only worthwhile outputs till today have been “Queen” and “Hasee Toh Phasee”). It is a sincere effort to spotlight the global drug menace issue in one of the favorite narcotic havens in India — Punjab. To tell the truth, the film touches only the tip of the iceberg there, so rampant is the evil there.

Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) has had a bad life and is now a rock star who is high on drugs. A Bihari migrant, Kumari Pinky (Alia Bhatt), works in the fields and stumbles upon a hidden packet of cocaine worth a crore. Temptation overrules her, and, against her better instincts, she tries to sell it. When she lands in trouble, she throws the powder in a well, and earns the wrath of the local drug baron whose ‘property’ it was! He imprisons her in his house, gets her addicted, and lets his goons and a corrupt cop exploit her sexually.

Cop Sartaj Singh (Diljit Dosanjh) discovers that his brother has been taking drugs. He desperately seeks the help of Dr. Preeti Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan) to save him. Preeti chides him for turning a Nelson’s eye to the menace just because the police get their share of commission from the drug-peddlers. She convinces him to start his investigation against the whole system that is destroying Punjab. In the process, they fall in love.

Meanwhile, Pinky encounters Tommy, now shocked out of his drugging habit by a night in jail, and actually rescues him from his fans-turned-haters. She tells Tommy of her story before she is re-captured, and Tommy decides to save her. Meanwhile, Sartaj’s brother decides to cunningly escape from the rehab home, and, in the fracas, a tragedy ensues that becomes the catalyst for the end of the drug menace. Tommy rescues Pinky and surrenders (the cops are hunting for him) and sends her to the dream vacation she wanted with his mentor, music baron Taaya (Satish Kaushik), and a cousin.

Had this been a normally made and released film that came like any other movie, we would have assessed it like any other Hindi film. However, the censor fracas makes us look at the content: Is this film fit for the Indian public’s consumption, or was the CBFC (India’s certification board) right in suggesting cuts and a stay on the film?

To begin with, the film has expletives in rampant overdrive, a clearly needless and fruitless exercise to outrage, sensationalize and stand out as “differently realistic.” Though director Abhishek “Ishqiya” Chaubey seems to have wanted/permitted this, it not only looks like a gimmick to get attention through the predictable trouble that will happen (and did as we all know!) with authorities but can defeat its very noble intention!

For all its sincere condemning of drugs, its spotlighting how such a menace cannot flourish minus political support, and even hinting at ways to end this scourge at all levels from personal to provincial and beyond, this film may find the family audiences staying away. This is a story that DESERVES to be watched by all, especially families and teenagers, and, in one lethal stroke, the cuss words deliver a blow to the very objective of the film!

Not a single cuss word that the CBFC objected to adds anything at all to the film’s impact, substance or characterization. The sequence that was even cut by the court, of Tommy urinating at the public, would have done nothing either, as we can figure the only place where it could have fitted! Yes, the remaining changes (including deleting “Punjab” from the title) were ludicrous, but methinks that freedom of expression, that basic tenet of democracy and free society, must come with responsibility and self-restraint!

Director Chaubey, but for this lapse, deserves full credits for a well-intentioned, gritty and gripping film that, unlike standard pseudo or Anurag Kashyap fare (which is almost synonymous in Hindi cinema!), is unduly dark only in small parts. Ditto (literally!) the well-done cinematography by Rajeev Ravi. Of the other technical aspects, Payal Saluja’s costume designs are impeccable, because we do not notice what everyone is wearing. Costume design, in that sense, is like background music in contemporary subjects — its triumph lies in being unnoticed!

The songs are salvaged by “Ikk Kudi,” interestingly sung by Dosanjh for Kapoor. The background music is serviceable but routine, and the editing (Megha Sen) is skilled, though the film could have done with a crisper narration.

Dosanjh shares the acting honors with Bhatt — the former is straight and intense, the latter layered and incredibly in a complex character that is as strong and determined as it is vulnerable. Kapoor is wildly over-the-top in his character and impresses with a correctly nuanced and hyper performance, though his eyes could have been more expressive. Khan in a small and passive role still exudes sincerity. Kaushik does well in a predictable character. Of those actors whose names we cannot get, the young brother of Sartaj and the ruthless old man among the drug lords are impressive.

The script is — barring the expletives, which is the irony! — excels in the expert layering and the way the pieces are put together logically for the final culmination. But the film’s second downer is that like the songs, even the dialogues are almost entirely in Punjabi. The media screening had English subtitles, but the general audience will have trouble understanding many of the words.

In the final analysis, we hope that this film, which loses an entire star for all this planned audience disconnect, does not go the way of so many movies with noble messages that lose their sheen and box office appeal and defeat their purpose of giving vital messages to society because of such and other forms of over-indulgence and over-confidence.

Rating: ***

Balaji Motion Pictures and Phantom Entertainment present “Udta Punjab”

Produced by: Shobha Kapoor, Ekta Kapoor, Sameer Nair, Aman Gill, Vikas Bahl, Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap

Directed by: Abhishek Chaubey

Written by: Abhishek Chaubey and Sudip Sharma

Music: Amit Trivedi

Starring: Kareena Kapoor Khan, Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Diljit Dosanjh, Satish Kaushik and others

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