This is the leap (of faith and intellect) that Udta Punjab asks its viewers to take. The Tommy-that-was or the Hockey-Girl-Who-Could-Have-Been are not secrets revealed to us via the familiar Bollywood trope of The Flashback. We’re pulled into feeling all this through the sheer power of storytelling says Pooja Pande.
There was once a promising gabru jawan who traveled from a village in Punjab to London, a journey epic as much for the sheer ambition, as for his personal quest. Because he would find himself there, amidst UK’s hip-hop underground scene. Soaking in the infectious vibes, he emerged anew with his talent intact, rooted as it was in childhood memories of folk singers, in the streets he called home. A new lease of life overwhelmed him and he made the reverse journey back, giving to art what he had absorbed and learnt.
But this is not how anyone would describe Tommy, the badass rockstar of Udta Punjab played with amazing clarity and precision by Shahid Kapoor.
When we first encounter him, Tommy is in the midst of yet another self-congratulatory moment rhyming ‘rock’ with ‘cock’ in a music studio, with hangers-on and groupies applauding the genius of that, the rockstar too blasted out of his brain to even notice what’s become of him, what he’s come to. In scene after scene – and when Tommy is on, he takes over in a way that you can sense his cocaine-fulled madness escaping from the screen and grabbing you by the neck like a trip gone really really bad – we see him as the lost cause he’s meant to be, an accident that has already happened and not in slow motion.He wouldn’t recognize himself from a time when it was about the music and the music alone even if you dunked his head in the toilet – a place you’ll often find him at, speaking as he does, to his reflection in the pot.
He grapples with the rhetoric himself, after all: ‘Barbaad raaton ka rakhega kaun hisaab?’
For he is now The Gabru.
There was once a teenager scraping through life somewhere in the despairing innards of Bihar who understood nothing of ambition, but tasted life the day she touched and wielded a hockey stick. Her days and nights all rallied round that singular activity of playing hockey. As she dodged and struck and defended and scored goals, she learnt to savor each and every moment, the sweat and the blood and the tears, so they would last her through the rest of her joyless day, to give some meaning to an otherwise purposeless life. She got lucky one day when in a random act of bureaucratic mercy, experts came scouting to her village school to look for promising players for the girls’ hockey team, or perhaps to check the boxes for quotas. She was selected and she began to play district matches. Game after game, she got better – the hockey stick felt like an extension of her own arm, she would flick her wrists in the in-between moments, perfecting moves, firming up her will. She would sleep with her hockey stick nestled close against her.
On the verge of playing state level, misfortune came calling – her father, a stoic farmer who’d lived through a lifetime of miseries, passed away. The little money they had, dried up soon, and she had to give up the game and go find work as indentured labor in the “greener pastures” of Punjab.
This is where we see her first, the nameless migrant worker, one of many, distinct only in that she nurses hope: Surely this is just temporary, a phase that will soon pass and she will be able to get back to feeling alive on the field again – if only she could make the money a little quickly. She’s even carried her hockey stick along.
When the get-rich scheme backfires terribly – all told in a terrifying, troubling sequence that unravels so perfectly to Da Da Dasse and gives you goosebumps – she is spent.
There is no going back, we know it now, she’s just a system cast-off.
For she is now The Hopeless Addict.
This is the leap (of faith and intellect) that Udta Punjab asks its viewers to take. The Tommy-that-was or the Hockey-Girl-Who-Could-Have-Been (Alia Bhatt’s character stays unnamed through the film, in a brilliantly executed feat of symbolism) are not secrets revealed to us via the familiar Bollywood trope of The Flashback.We’re pulled into feeling all this, understanding all the baggage and backstories of dreams and ambitions and possibilities and youth and everything gone awry, only through the sheer power of storytelling.
Navigating the arc onscreen for us, is Sartaj, the cop whose journey Udta Punjab plays out as part of its plot, essayed to perfection by Daljit Dosanjh. We see him as the young man with the large family, for whom landing a government job would have qualified as the equivalent of lottery lagna. A job in the police force even better, for it comes with what the common man never has – power. He looks away when his senior waves away yet another truck laden with drugs across the border, even as he tries not to link it with the “narcopolitics” he keeps reading about in the papers. “Will we become like Mexico?”, he wonders aloud at the naaka, somehow convinced, or rather in denial of the fact, that not only is it happening before his very eyes, it is happening on his watch. It is only when the problem comes home, that Sartaj is forced to face it all, face himself, and is provoked into action.He is the doer of the film, in a way, and his narrative turns into a poignant thriller.
With a taut, provocative story line, etched-out characters, nuanced performances, and brilliant dialogues – this is how real people sound, you want to tell the rest of them!(Except maybe Dr. Preet Sahni’s – played by Kareena Kapoor Khan, she mouths one too many platitudes, but then, let’s face it – she is as close as it comes to god in a godless land that’s being fulled by a new-age “green revolution”, and is hence, almost rendered unreal. She’s even called out for being too perfect, at one point. But she does sound off pertinent, important messages in the film – “Sadda munda theek, auraan de kharaab”, she mocks, driving home the point to parents who think their laadlas can never do wrong).
I can’t remember the last time a mainstream Hindi movie – because as bleak and disturbing it might be, this is a mainstream Hindi movie – asked all this of its viewer. Accustomed as we are to the inundation of rampant sexism, racism, homophobia, and just plain Victorian prudery (why else do the likes of Housefull and Kya Kool Hain Hum work – all those sickly jokes about sex showcase our wink-wink attitude around “breaking taboos”), seldom are we asked to think about anything playing on the screen, let alone question it. Or (god forbid) consider it material to put forth in arguments about politics or culture or society. Arguments to take forward, to help shape the way we think, feel, act and form our governance policies even.
And that’s also why I can’t remember the last time a mainstream Hindi movie gave so much to its viewer. And I don’t just mean that electric soundtrack. So good!