Udta Punjab (2016):
Irrespective of what a film is about, what firstly strikes me and lastly moves me is how beautiful it is. Amid the head-turning hype, amid censoring controversies on violence and vulgarity of the film, and in a larger sense of any film seeking release in the country, what I noticed is how beautiful Udta Punjab is. Its beauty cutting through all the slangs, all the squalor of its depicted reality.
The film made primarily to showcase the state of a state, how drugs have captured the lies and imaginations of a Punjab languishing far from its prideful past, where the youth who once fought for Freedom is now seeking it in the powders and syringes of a free-falling ‘Ecstasy’, succeeds in wrapping its motive in a segmented plot that makes its ends meet in the end and refrains from the excesses of melodrama altogether. The movie oscillates between its three separate stories with seeming effortlessness, jumping from one to the other without once over-complicating it or tangling the emotional threads it so poignantly weaves. What we see as the end-product is far more than an authoritative stance on the topic, and far extraordinary than the typical Bollywood our imagination is used to.
Where the film really has you shaken is with the acting (this word actually seems contradictory) of the actors (again, they are beyond it). Such fearlessness and freedom of acting is not only rare of ‘glamorous’ mainstream actors, it is simply stupefying. With carefully-crafted dialogues and accurate portrayal of slang-culture, they could have kept me eyes flowing without a shred of plot. Shahid and Alia shares screen in only a handful of scenes, and in the first of them, they render, in near-zero background music, what can arguably be called the best duet performance of modern Indian cinema. I repeat: I have not seen such courage and perfection in acting. I have not been more affected than when Alia’s character was blurting out the entire span of her journey in one breathless go, in one burst of a lifetime’s agony. I reached out and felt it. I was there, she lives somewhere in the vast stretches of my Motherland, she is not one, rather many, and she screamed her pain to me. I, the audience saw. I, the audience touched her wounds, felt the power of honest cinema. Then to top it all with words that meant, I have not broken, I am still standing. I am still standing.
Alia Bhatt delivers the performance that is worth infinitely more than her career’s ultimate earnings, her family’s name, and a lifetime of glitz, glamour and fame. She transcended it all, she won’t talk about it too much as it won’t make headlines in the Gossip columns that the glamour-chasing youth devours, ‘entertainment’ cinema will soon overshadow it by the sheer power of its quantity, but she delivers at the age of 22 (it probably won’t rage the glamorous private award shows and politically-correct government one) an actor’s dream, an artist’s pride. The nation will still find pleasure to call her ‘dumb’, ‘stupid’, even ‘uneducated’ (it is the same nation I’m taking about that still does not see what force Indian Cinema is becoming) but for all I care, she is an actor and she is awfully good at what she chose. I didn’t imagine I’d have to say, Highway was only a beginning. Now I believe, Udta too was just scratching the surface.
Shahid Kapoor delivers unquestionably the second-best performance of the movie, but those who are acquainted with the names Kaminey and Haider already know the potential of his acting, and by all means, his rendition of the drug-addict, misguided popstar Tommy is as memorable and as stirring. He owns most of his scenes and the one where Tommy breaks into a song in the hospital is another distinct example of exudation of simple cinematic beauty I’m obsessing about. Kareena delivers her worth distinctly in her final scene, showing all what the experience of years culminates to. Diljit Dosanjh wears the skin of his character consistently throughout and lends the measured heroism that the character asks. Prabhjot Singh as the suffering image of Punjab’s youth, Balli strikes a heavy chord and shows a world of promise for the young actor.
Udta becomes the face of Bollywood that is gradually surfacing but is still suppressed. Such honesty of a topic delivered with such coherence and maturity is still rare. The fight with the CBFC was completely worth it. For once at least, cinema won over every reason, every effort to hide what unsettles. By it, Udta can claim its importance in shaping a small dawn of a larger change of India and her art, pending after every election, every corruption, every campaign, throughout the long years, since the lengthy echoes of the bells of Independence rung 68 years ago on a midnight, and the first reel that rolled in the hands of Dadasaheb Phalke a hundred and three calendars back. In a few minds, a few scenes and images simply stands.
(June 28, 2016)