How will India wake up to an addiction eating into Punjab’s gut? Abhishek Chaubey is confident a film made over two trying years can do it
Abhishek Chaubey, 39, doesn’t get teary-eyed easily. In fact, deep into our conversation, he will recollect how he laughed at his maternal grandmother’s funeral.
But, while researching his upcoming release on drug abuse, he came face to face with heroin addict as young as 17. “It was hard just watching them,” he admits.
He and Udta Punjab’s writer Sudip Sharma were at a police station in a small village in Punjab. The lock-ups were packed with addicts, all aged 17 to 24. “It was a make-shift rehab centre. They were brought into the room we were waiting in one by one. It wasn’t as if they told us a sad story; they were too dazed to speak. But it was heart wrenching.” Sharma walked out with him, saying, “If a movie deserves to be made on a subject, it is this.”
The ‘drug film’ set to release on June 17 is one he has wanted to make for long. The young man from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, who after assisting Vishal Bhardwaj on Omkara, went on to direct the acclaimed Ishqiya, then Dedh Ishqiya in 2014. It has taken two years to get Udta Punjab ready.
Alia Bhatt in a still from the movie
He made Amritsar his base, roaming the Majha area of Punjab, skirting the border Pakistan, including the towns of Gurdaspur, Tarn Taran, Pathankot and Sialkot, together with scores of villages. It was in one of these villages that Chaubey and Sharma met the most interesting characters. “In a small village, some kilometres away from Amritsar, we met a farmer. For no apparent reason, he had decided to take on the establishment. The locals see the establishment as one that promotes the drug trade in Punjab.”
(Right) Chaubey chatting with Shahid Kapoor on set
In Tarn Taran, they met a doctor of psychiatry, who travelled every day from Amritsar to see addicts hooked to drugs. “We went to a hospital where he practiced, and 90 per cent of patients were there to see this doctor.” When they asked him why he chose to drive a couple of hours every day to get from Amritsar to Tarn Taran, he said what the farmer had: “Someone has to.”
This doctor became the inspiration for Kareena Kapoor’s character. “We also met families. The movie, then, is about everyone who who is affected. If you look at the northeastern states and Punjab, you know why the problem is grave there — people are grappling with the after effects of insurgency,” he says.
This is made worse by Punjab being a key spot on the world drug highway. “Research revealed that heroin is now manufactured in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is pilfered through the border, using innovative containers like PVC pipes. The situation in Pakistan Punjab is worse.”
The Pathankot airbase attack turned the spotlight on the nexus between terrorists and drug smugglers in Pakistan. A recent survey by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) at AIIMS found that opioids valued at Rs 7,500 crore are consumed annually in Punjab. Heroin alone accounts for Rs 6,500 crore of this amount.
For Alia Bhatt’s character, the inspiration came from daily wage farm labour that arrives in Punjab from UP, Bihar and Uttrakhand to serve moneyed landlords, says Chaubey. “Later, she gets involved with drugs. They all do!”
But the protagonist, played by Shahid Kapoor, is a musician called Tommy Singh. “And no, he is not inspired by Honey Singh!” Chaubey clarifies.
He, in fact, was Chaubey’s version of a DJ from a Delhi nightclub. “So, here is a guy who is from Punjab who goes to Birmingham and becomes a part of the underground Asian dub movement. And, as we always think, DJs at a Delhi nightclub will either be around drugs or be surrounded by it. That’s who he is.”
Thanks to Shahid’s character, the music of the movie (composed by Amit Trivedi) is funky with a Bhangra dance influence.
What Chaubey wishes the audience takes away from his latest project is that Punjab’s drug problem is a national issue India is compelled to discuss. “The movie hasn’t even released and people are talking about it,” he says.
The trailer, although dramatic, also carries a hint of humour. Chaubey says it’s a reflection of the film — discussing a social evil, but in a light vein. “I don’t believe in making movies that are one-toned. Life isn’t like that. I laughed at my nani’s funeral because nana cracked a joke. Life has so many shades, and that’s how my movies are too.”