WTF ASIA 150: Udta Punjab (2016)


Available in AustraliaCanadaFrancethe United Kingdomthe United States. Approximately 146 minutes.



The movies starts with a disclaimer, perhaps to sooth the censorship board.

Among other things, the disclaimer claims that drugs are not produced in the state of Punjab, but come in and go out through the porous borders. That could be referring to Pakistan, but it could also refer to neighboring Indian states of Rajasthan, Harayana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu & Kashmir. Whatever. Let’s get this going.

It is nighttime on the border of Punjab in India and West Punjab in Pakistan. Three Pakistani men on some form of motorbike drive close to the fence blocking off the two countries. One of them, wearing a Pakistan jacket (subtle) takes a package of…uh…drugs…and tosses it over the fence into India.

There it goes, flying high. Udta Punjab.

Three minutes in and here comes the first song. During this song, we are introduced to most of its main characters. First, there is popstar Tejinder Singh, who goes by the name Tommy. At a concert with lighting that might be seizure-inducing, he is dancing on the hood of a truck and extoling the wonders of recreational drug use. Maybe weed, but more specifically cocaine.

Then we meet ASI (Assistant sub-inspector of police) Sartaj Singh – presumably no relation to Tommy. He and his team have just apprehended some drug smugglers and have confiscated several packages of drugs.

However, when it comes time to photograph the successful bust, there are significantly fewer packages; other cops gave him cash to take around two thirds of the packages. For what purpose we can only guess. Meanwhile, the drugs exchange hands over and over, going all through the state and affecting even those who do not touch any of it.

There is also an anti-drug movement, fronted by an activist doctor named Preet Sahani, but its level of success is ambiguous.

And now we meet our last main character, known as…uh…let’s call her Bauria. She, along with a bunch of other people, had come to Punjab from…somewhere…in the back of a truck. She finds herself working in a field near the border with Pakistan.

One night, Bauria is in the field and hears a thump. She goes over to see what made that noise and sees a package on the ground. It is unclear whether she knows what it is. Just as she picks it up, she hears a man walking around, obviously looking for the package. She opts to hide from him. He runs off when a patrol truck drives past. Bauria opens the package and tries tasting the powder inside. She spits it out immediately. Well, it is not flour.

Tommy and his entourage are in the studio as he records a song about…uh…coke cock. He starts to cough and the recording stops. His buddies assure him that the song is going to be an anthem. His manager turns to a couple of executives who seem…less enthusiastic. Tommy had been promising them something complete for three months and the release date has been pushed back twice. So, they walk away, and the manager dejectedly turns back to Tommy and his friends, who are obliviously goofing off. He yells at them for screwing up the deal, which causes…uh…the “Emo chick” to start laughing so hard that she falls out of her chair.

Tommy’s entourage are driving along. Tommy is cutting up some coke while speaking on the cellphone with one of the executives. One of his buddies is filming him as he cuts up the coke and snorts it…that is not prudent. Now coked up, he starts berating the executive and the driver joins in. Somehow…Tommy’s crew and the executives end up pulling up to the same traffic stop. A car chase ensues. Tommy’s crew drives off the road and the executives escape. The “Emo chick” starts laughing again, so Tommy pulls her out of the car, yelling at her that it is over. She says that he is over. And…I don’t know what happens to her after that.

A ticked-off Tommy goes to his house that night to find it is all dark. Where is everybody? Well, everybody is in the foyer for his surprise birthday party…dang, he got fired on his birthday? Well, happy birthday to Tommy the Gabru. I am not sure what Gabru means, but the internet’s translation makes it seem like it means something along the lines of an “Alpha Male” and no one has told me otherwise, so I am going with that. So, Tommy is happy again.

At the state border, Sartaj and other cops are watching trucks pass. Senior officer Jhujar Singh (again, no relation) is telling stories about how drug lords rule Mexico and that there are places where police cannot enter. Sartaj suggests that the situation is the same here in Punjab. Jhujar responds by ordering the squad to stop the next truck. Sartaj takes out a bottle from the back of the truck while Jhujar roughs up the driver, demanding raise in bribes. Cop power. Then Jhujar orders the squad to leave the border crossing for…

Tommy’s birthday party, where EVERYONE is doing drugs. Aaaaand in comes Jhujar and crew, demanding to see Tommy. His friend and his manager insist that Tommy is not there…at a 3:00 AM party in his own house. It ultimately does not matter, as the cops overhear Tommy yelling into a toilet. And then he bursts out of the bathroom right into the path of the cops.

Tommy’s arrest, of course, makes big news. In an interview, Minister of Parliament Maninder Brar insists that supposedly soft targets like Tommy are encouraging drug addiction through their music and lifestyle. Sartaj, not really watching as he prepares for work, dismisses Brar as phoney. His mother gives him some breakfast and tells him to wake up his younger brother Balli and take him to college. Oh, hey, there is Sartaj on the TV taking Tommy away. Sartaj goes over to Balli’s room and finds him…well, out of it. Still, he takes Balli to school, gives him some cash, and warns him against going to the…coffee shop. Of course, the first thing that Balli does is go to a pharmacy to purchase two bottles of the stuff that was on that truck that Jhujar had pulled over.

Remember Bauria? Well, she is in the field, spraying what I can assume is…spray…onto the crops. She notices some guys at the edge of the field making a very overt drug deal and mentioning more money than she probably makes in a while. When one of the bosses spots her not working, she tells him that she has stomach problems and needs to see a doctor. He tells her to return before noon or else he will cut her day’s pay.

Bauria goes to a store and discretely weighs the package. It is just over three kilograms, which means that it is worth…quite a bit. She asks the storeowner what happened to the crowds at the tea stall, and he replies that they all went to the ruins to get drugged-out. There, she encounters Balli strung out on heroin. She asks if he wants any…powder…erm…yes heroin. They start to work out a commission deal when Bauria tells him that she has three kilograms. He gets suspicious; how did she get so much? But she pushes back. So Balli tells her that someone in town named Raja may be able to purchase it. She asks for Raja’s cell number. Balli returns to his fellow addicts, who resume teasing him for being the brother of the guy who arrested their idol. Then he takes another dose of heroin and overdoses.

Sartaj arrives at the hospital where Balli’s buddy had taken him. Oh, Balli is not faring well; vomiting everywhere. Sartaj smacks the buddy and shoos him away. And if you remember Doctor Preet Sahani from twenty minutes ago, she now makes her official entrance scolding the…whoever he is for not turning Balli on his side. Jeez, that should have been obvious. Sartaj asks her if his brother will be okay. She simply asks him to wait outside in the lobby where some guy is handing out flyers for some kind of addiction recovery program.

Sartaj waits until Preet comes out and thanks her for helping. She tells him that is unclear what specific drugs Balli has been taking, but he has been taking them for a while. Sartaj tries to blame Balli’s friends, but Preet scoffs at him. Still, Sartaj follows her to her motor-scooter and apologizes for his foolish remarks. He asks whether Balli can recover and she tells him that it is up to Balli and his environment. She suggests that Sartaj bring Balli to her clinic after he is discharged and then she rides off.

Meanwhile, Tommy is in jail…or prison. Some form of lockup by himself. He asks the guard to let him speak with MP Brar. Tommy performed at his daughter’s wedding, after all. The guard just walks away. Tommy starts throwing a tantrum about not having water, so Sartaj goes into the cell, assaults him, and then forcefully moves him to general lockup with a bunch of other prisoners…a lot of other prisoners. Everything is quiet for a while, and then a couple of the younger prisoners start reciting one of Tommy’s songs at him. They tell him that they became fans of his in eighth grade. They want to be the Gabru, just like him, which of course required taking drugs. And when their mother refused to financially enable their addiction, they killed her. And now they are here…with Tommy.

Having made contact with…someone…the night before, Bauria travels by bus to the city, managing to make it through a police checkpoint through being inconspicuous. Although, she feels less conspicuous as she gets off of the bus; it seems that a whole bunch of men all over the street are staring at her. Right as she gets a phone call, she gets starts to feel that something is really really wrong.

Instead of answering her phone, Bauria runs off to…wherever. A group of guys in a van recognize her and drive after her. She runs into a field, where they cannot drive, and stops at a well. She rips open the package and dumps the contents into the well. And now the well water is full of drugs. The men see her and scream at her for ruining their stuff. They capture her and take her to a house where their boss lives, an elderly man named…erm…Veerji.

After punishing one of his guys for supposedly causing this mess, Veerji turns to Bauria and asks her why she would steal nearly $140,000 worth of product if she was just going to destroy it. She starts crying. He leaves her with two of his men…who almost immediately attempt to assault her. She puts up a fight and tries to escape, but a third man comes to help restrain her and…uh…inject her with heroin.

A week after he was arrested, Tommy is freed, to great fanfare and controversy.

Meanwhile, Balli’s family enrolls him in Dr Sahani’s program…kind of against his wishes. Sartaj thanks her for taking care of his brother, but she does not let him leave just yet.

Preet tells Sartaj that he should not wear his police uniform the next time that he visits. After all, he had no idea what was going on with his own brother. Does he really have no idea what is going on in the rest of Punjab? How much does he get paid to have no idea? Surely, he can afford to take Balli to a private clinic in Delhi. She all but calls him a hypocrite for helping to exacerbate the state’s drug problem without a care until it directly affects his family. She shows him a bottle containing two drugs that have been illegally combined in order to dodge prescription laws. She insists that he must have seen a bottle like this before, unless he was paid not to. She, of course, is right on both counts, though he does not outright admit it. So, he gets thousands of rupies to look the other way as Balli spends a mere fifty for just one more chance to kill himself. So…what is Sartaj to do?



Before getting into the movie itself, I would like to talk a little about how much the Central Board of Film Certification haaaated this movie, and initially demanded something like 89 or 94 cuts. Yeah, some are maybe a little understandable, like all of the swear words or the close-up shots of drug injections. But there are other less understandable ones, like the names of nine real-life cities, a sign with the word “Punjab” on it, a dog with a name that sounds like Jackie Chan, and a few political references. The filmmakers fought back and, ultimately the film was released with only a scene of Tommy urinating on people deleted. From what I gather, the whole thing sparked discussions about free expression in India and the reputation of Punjab.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan plain-old banned it.

Okay, so Wikipedia calls this movie a black comedy crime film…I am not so sure about that. Sure, Tommy is a goofball and much of his storyline is played for laughs. And maybe other parts may elicit laughs, especially if one finds them to be cheesy or ridiculously unrealistic. But…black comedy? Eh…it can be bleak and cynical, yeah. And a couple of the turns it takes…yikes…I dunno. Anyways.

I cannot say for certain, but this could be seen as an Indian answer to the American movie Traffic…or the British television show Traffik, which had three vaguely connected storylines around a drug epidemic. It has been a while since I have seen either, but I vaguely remember the movie at least focused on the criminal apparatus that keeps the drugs moving, helped along by law enforcement’s incompetence and complicity. I mean, it was more than that, but basically…one could argue that Udta Punjab is similar in that respect.

Bauria’s storyline is primarily of her stumbling upon a drug-smuggling operation while Near the bottom rungs of society, Bauria’s dreams of a better life have fallen by the wayside, leaving her bitter until that package appears. Always a fighter, she sees it as her big opportunity to do for herself what life has failed to do for her so far. While often impulsive, she attempts to be clever about selling the package. Nevertheless, she realizes, perhaps too late, that she is way above her head. And she pays heavily for it.

Sartaj’s storyline is him coming to terms with his complicity in the epidemic. It is unclear how long he has been a police officer, but he has been pretty much all corrupted by the time we meet him. He is under no delusions that he and his team are making money by allowing drugs to flow into the state; that the photo ops of them arresting criminals are just for show. Brutally bullying the populace, from lowly truck drivers to Tommy, is less of a way of fighting crime and more of asserting their position within the drug trade. It is only when what goes around comes around that his questioning of his purpose changes from cynical backtalk to actual introspection. Was he so intent on ignoring the problem that he did not realize how far gone his brother has been?

Tommy has risen from modest means to the tippity top, where all has been available to him, particularly drugs. His success in music has been due to drugs, and his fans love his promotion of drugs. And the money that he makes goes right back into purchasing more drugs. Yet, he is coming to the point where his drugs interfere with his creative process. And he starts to realize that his position is precarious, that all that he has gained can be lost if he does not stop doing what he is doing. He is faced with some of the consequences of addiction for those who cannot afford to fund theirs. But it also becomes clear that his identity and his fandom are wrapped up in his drug use. To do what is right…and what might keep him alive, he has to come to terms with who he really is and what he has to do.

As for other drug users, admittedly, their portrayal…not the most sympathetic. It tries to, I suppose, but it does not really get into their heads. They are just breaking themselves in their quest for the next fix and dragging their loved ones down with them. The movie seems to place most the blame for drug use on, well, the suppliers, of course, but Tommy and his ilk are seen as corrupting the youth and glamourizing use of various drugs. And…that is pretty much it. Balli idolizes Tommy, as does pretty much everyone else who is hooked on drugs. It is a rather odd choice and, given the hubbub over censorship attempts, it seems like a deliberate one. There are hints that he is not only to blame, but no other real alternative is provided. So, Tommy has to deal with the fallout of his behavior and how everyone sees him.

Also, even though there are a few women shown on screen taking drugs or heavily implied to be addicts, particularly Emo Chick, the majority of people shown on screen actually taking drugs are young. Bauria is the main exception and she was forced into it. I don’t know if that means anything; it is just an observation.

Aside from that incompetent assistant, the medical profession is seen as an overworked force for good. No sign of over-prescribing painkillers or anything. And, despite the complaints that the movie painted Punjab in a negative light, it did not claim that people turned to drugs simply because life in Punjab has driven them to complete despair that only drugs can relieve, if only temporarily and at great cost. Bauria’s storyline could have had her turn to drugs in a moment of hopelessness, but that was not what happened. To an extent, it seems to have a little more sympathy towards at least one person working at the bottom of the drug smuggling ladder than it has for the addicts.

The actual reasons for taking drugs are not much of a concern for the movie. It wants to draw a line between the various levels of the criminal network that forms, distributes, and sells these drugs. It also points a finger at law enforcement and politicians for enabling such criminals while paying lip service to (and committing acts of violence in the name of) fighting drug crime. It is a nose-thumbing polemic wrapped up in a mainstream-ish crime thriller with a bit of mystery and action in it. And, yes, comedy. I find it quite entertaining…a little icky at times, but entertaining overall. Would it have been made better had it gone deeper into the reasons for drug use other than bad role model celebrities? Maybe. But the movie would not have changed all that much. Realistic or not, I find the drug angle to be mostly a means to propel the mystery thriller plot. That said, there is enough of it that one cannot simply call it window-dressing.

Udta Punjab is a fun movie overall, but there are parts that are uncomfortable. Tommy’s drug binges come across as amusing for a while, but he can be quite intense and, I believe that the actor Shahid Kapoor had struggled to get into his character’s headspace. Balli’s overdose is kind of gross. And Bauria…dang…her character goes through the ringer. Apparently, Alia Bhatt did as well when portraying her. Still, both Bhatt and Kapoor (along with Kareena Kapoor, who played Doctor Sahani) halved their fees in making this film, so they must have seen the value in taking their roles. Also, not to spoil the ending, but there is one particular…moment towards the end that is notable for just how much longer it goes on than one would have expected. I actually gasped the first time I saw it…and the second time as well, because I had forgotten all about it. Does eliciting nervous laughter count as being a dark comedy?

Anyways, this movie is flawed, to be sure. Kind of uneven and a little lurid at times. And it is a rough ride. But I found it quite entertaining overall. And you might as well.



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