Udta Punjab has one of the most heartbreaking kisses I've ever seen. Farm labourer Alia Bhatt and rock star Shahid Kapoor competitively trade sob stories. She's never had a man listen to her with empathy before, and her story tumbles out in a fast-forward outburst. A state level hockey player, she migrated to Punjab as farm labour, following her father's death. But she has been kidnapped by a drug dealer-pimp gang, which rapes and prostitutes her after injecting her with heroin.
Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab
"First, one guy raped me, then another, sometimes they all raped me together," she says, her tone rising; then suddenly, she kisses him. "Iske siva sab kuch hua," she says dryly — "Except this, everything has happened to me." It is a matter-of-fact kiss, but its comment on the dire drought of tenderness in the way men treat women, is a searing indictment of gender relations in India. She ends with a defiant, "Ab hum khade hain" (I'm still standing) — which should become the anthem of India's women.
Propelled by a ferocious energy, this film is a powerful exploration of how the drug trade and drug addiction have laid waste a whole generation in Punjab. The rot is deep — from schoolboy dopeheads who have killed their own mothers to get money for their fixes, to corrupt police and politician drug dealers — and the film spares no one.
It weaves together diverse stories, of a rockstar, a migrant labourer, a doctor and a policeman, and is marked by savage, black humour. This remarkable film is Abhishek Chaubey's third feature, following the terrific Ishqiya and pretty daring Dedh Ishqiya. Sudip Sharma, who wrote NH10, has written Udta Punjab, with Chaubey as co-writer.
Thrillingly, the film is powerfully feminist. Most of the men are corrupt bastards, drug dealers, rapists, pimps or dopeheads. The women are decent; they work hard, fight back, have the ambition to rise above their circumstance, and be the change they want to see. In both Shahid Kapoor-Alia Bhatt and Kareena Kapoor Khan-Diljit Dosanjh's stories, the women save the men and drive the 'romance'. Bhatt saves Kapoor, literally and metaphorically, dramatically changing his life; Kapoor Khan does likewise with Dosanjh.
Dosanjh tells her: "Madamji, all the men in Punjab are drugged out. Now, it's up to the ladies to do something." She tries to expose the corrupt system, while Alia stabs her kidnappers and
The sparkling screenplay is spiked with delicious humour. When a drugged-out Dosanjh wakes up in Kapoor Khan's bedroom, he asks her about 'kal raat,' in a nod to the famous Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge sequence, coolly reversing gender roles. Shahid Kapoor and the ensemble cast do a great job, but young Alia Bhatt is truly a revelation. In the depths of her drug-clouded despair, and her determination to fight back, we root for her all the way.
Few current Bollywood actresses can match her calibre; for an industry whose stars have driven away its actors, Bhatt raises Bollywood's bar high. Rajeev Ravi's cinematography is compelling, and the way he shoots Bhatt's gang rape is restrained, yet visceral. Editor Megha Sen weaves together diverse strands playfully. Amit Trivedi's songs are powerful, as are the dialogues and lyrics. Produced by Alt Entertainment and Phantom Films, this 'A' film is not for the faint-hearted, but you should definitely not miss it. Thank you, Censor Board, for the free publicity, but not the grief, as we make way for Anurag Kashyap's Raman Raghav 2.0.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at email@example.com.