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A Noise that Deafens: A Review of ‘Udta Punjab’

Gaurav Puri

A still from 'Udta Punjab'

A still from ‘Udta Punjab’

Udta Punjab doesn’t engage with drugs. Instead, it makes the drug addicts invisible in a hackneyed rendition of a traditional Bollywood potboiler – so much so that it manufactures a novel method for the industry to articulate its belief in the traditional moral system of good and evil under the glorified veil of realism (or real issues).

Tommy Singh is a UK returned hip-hop star, whose lyrics—his music, his lifestyle, his ‘gabru’ outfit—have produced mother-killing drug-addict monsters. A drug-addict star and his drug-addict fans. Even as the star’s narrative plays out, his addicted fans are nowhere to be seen.They will be employed by the film later– as they lie in dishevelled corners of decaying monuments, like rats in an abandoned house – as providers of redemption for our superstar. After a chance encounter in the prison with drug addicts who’ve turned criminals due to his music (for a film that rallied against censorship, it adopts a nice, moralistic view of the influence of art on society), Tommy realises that ‘drugs are bad, my lyrics are bad, they create drug addicts, my life is a waste and I am a fuddu (a loser)’.

Now, redeemed Tommy Singh is running awry looking for motivation. He cannot shed the memory of his meeting in jail away. As an exorcism, the film conveniently arranges his meeting with another besahara, bechari: a nameless Bihari migrant. She will represent the women in the film. She is also a hockey player who didn’t have the resources to play.Therefore, she is a complete victim. In a brief moment, meant perhaps to be an indication of her emancipation, the migrant shuts the mouth of the afraid Tommy Singh, half-lying on hay, with a kiss. “Bas! Ye chhod ke baki sab kiya unhone,” she tongues her torment – there was no love, no tenderness.

Rather than contemplating the apathy of her rape — a critical or at least, aware portrayal—and the violence of this act(already established as masculine mayhem), the film restages and appropriates it for its own purpose. She is quickly rendered the object of our sympathy: a nameless migrant in a world of wolves, a poor labourer with no greater ambition than visiting a tourist destination that’s now third, maybe a fourth-choice destination for the multiplex audience, a woman hockey player in a country that only watches cricket played by men. It is our obligation to root for her – we merely represent the opposite end of the power complex instituted around her.

However, the story continues, Tommy now has motivation to kill the drug lords and reclaim his lost art (the film doesn’t even declare a technical difference between the two): love, the good old drug of post-liberalisation, the Archies-child.

Parallel to this, there runs a story of institutions: police and healthcare. They fail miserably at their job, other thanour heroes—the good cop, Sartaj Singh and the enlightened nurturer, Preet—who manage to pull off a nifty detective mission by photographing the name of the phantom company set up to distribute raw opium; as also, of political pracharaks who distribute drugs during elections. Their solution: share the ‘file’ with the Election Commission, another institution.

The film’s declared ground-breaking portrayal—or ‘researched’ documentation is merely reestablishment of stereotypes—substance reduced to symbol, half-truths rendered as facts. Punjab is often talked about in the film: it is the object of various conversations that permeate through the film and is even depicted through an analogous invocation of Mexico. There are images that form the matrix of research: chemists sell over-the-counter drug cocktails, politicians front as anti-drug crusaders, migrants who work in the background in brick-kilns. But there are other images that are missing: the drug addicts and their families.

They are the invisible majority; penniless, scavenging in the streets of villages across the state, nowhere to be seen or heard. They, who are locked up on false charges, filling numbers for the police, are held under the baton. Whenever the film can spare any time from its stories of redemption, vengeance, escape, heroism or love, it devotes it to Balli, burdened with the task of standing proxy for an entire generation. He behaves like a professional (perhaps because he’s not), his eyes are the most naked.

Balli, much like the rest of the state, idolises Tommy Singh.When his elder brother, Sartaj, learns of his addiction due to an accidental overdose, he locks Balli in a room. He then proceeds to thrash him as the prisoner cries to be freed before promptly depositing the scene’s tragedy onto himself: ‘Main toh barah ghante bahaar rehta hu, aap log kyun nahin dekht eisse!? (‘I am out most of the time. Why don’t you supervise him in my absence?’) he snarls at his family members, all of who are non-characters. Later, he thrashes his younger brother as he cries to be freed. He is then transferred to a drug rehabilitation centre organised by Preet. There too, he is alone, desolate, misunderstood, a witness. Support is largely absent, and while his brother and Preet embark on another adventure, he watches silently from the window, bleeding himself. In this, the film sets up the violence which will follow later: the climax of the film turns Balli into a violent murderer, a cautionary tale, as he accidentally slashes Preet’s throat ( who dies – a martyr – while serving the cause).

The film quickly banishes Balli to the background: from here on, he will be used as a bargaining chip, a narrative contrivance, a plot MacGuffin, but he won’t make a proper appearance until the film’s ending, where he will cry over the black of the credit scroll. This is of course, a false ending – the film must end with a fantasy: the Bihari immigrant returns to take a dive to cleanse herself – and us – of the film’s dark past. Instead, savour the moment of her glory: captivated for most of the film, she is now free to swim anywhere – but where is Balli?

The film’s judgment is clear: drugs are proliferated by the rich and the powerful who bring in drugs from outside of India (the longest running brand of spirituality and getting high), who enforce these upon an unsuspecting common public to keep intact prevalent hierarchies, consolidate their own power and keep the majority silent. This allows them to continue the ‘green revolution’, to accumulate wealth which they employ to source finer material to consume at their own parties – while deigning to those vastly less affluent with cheaper, adulterated cocktails that render them largely dysfunctional. The film however does not address the genuine contention of just why the poor are so gullible, of why they are so susceptible to the lure of contraband that trickles down to them. Is it that – despite the film’s vehement opposition of substance abuse – drugs are the only form of escape from an environment of repression available to these young men and women? Is it perhaps that there is no other recourse? Is there a lack of avenues for them to articulate properly their youth? Why is it that they take to Tommy Singh’s music so naturally – while finding it difficult to confide in their own family members? What is the larger circumstance that feeds this attitude of addiction? We are told there is a swamp, those who benefit from it, but how did the swamp come to be and what sustains it – there is no inquiry, or curiosity in this direction? There is the depiction of a situation, but very little of the context.

Inside a recurring sequence, Balli and his friends skip tuition and go to the nearby khandhar (ruins) to get high. Even education – which is peddled as a commodity at the tuition centres across the country – has failed these children. This scene is important and unique, for it signifies the sheer isolation of growing up, of not being understood, of life at an age where an individual desires guardianship, but also independence. Instead of placing its sympathy with him and his friends (who exist, as all sidekicks in films do, as objects of comedy, dopey-heads meant to be mocked for one is superior to them) the film instead devotes itself to a grocery-list of the authoritative figures, the usual villains: politicians, the police and the big businessmen and their henchmen – institutions that nurture the swamp but never step into it.

It was the Mexican serial Ven Comigo (Come With Me), which became the blue-print for the first the serial of contemporary India: Hum Log. Not only was the latter show researched, but also assumed the responsibility of furthering a dialogue with its audience, the collective voice of ‘hum log’. Yet, a film announced as ‘brave’, or ‘honest’, or ‘well researched’ even before its release fails unfortunately to encourage any nuanced discourse. The film censors itself – noticeably amiss are the families of the drug addicts and beneath all of the performance of addiction, its real misery.

Not so long ago I saw Chauthi Koot(2015), a film set in Punjab in 1984. Its circumstance: the militant atmosphere that resulted from the Khalistani demand for secession. It depicts this through a wounded Punjab, its silent houses, its tamed residents, afraid mothers, dead sons and the helplessness of citizens caught between authorities, legitimate and illegitimate. The film deals with its subject through silence—relying on the power of cinema, of portrayal. But in Udta Punjab, which opens with a lengthy disclaimer as a statement of its purpose, there is a lot of noise, but very little meaning.