Chaubey tells his powerful, sinewy story with great dramatic flair, but he never ventures too far away from the harsh reality of the nexus between the drug kingpins and the state’s politicians.
In one scene, a lawman mockingly describes the current situation as Green Revolution Part Two, drawing attention to the link between the drug menace and Punjab’s worsening agrarian crisis.
If the film’s keen sense of the times that we live in is impressive, the way it etches out and develops the key characters in the drama is no less commendable.
Three of the film’s four principal characters are utterly imperfect, but they are, pretty much like Punjab itself, not beyond redemption.
When self-realization kicks in, they are all ready to give redemption a shot. It is their journey from gloom to hope that Udta Punjab tracks without the slightest concession to overt sentimentality.
What it achieves in the process is real emotional traction. As the three flawed figures – a wayward pop singer, a poor farm hand done in by desperation and a cop uneasy with the compromises he makes – fight to rise above the despair surrounding them, they emerge as people worth rooting for.
At two-and-a-half hours, Udta Punjab is an overlong film, but almost every scene, jointly written by Sudip Sharma and director Abhishek Chaubey, demands attention and propels the story forward.
The dialogues, mostly in Punjabi (written by Sudip Sharma), are earthy and rooted in the soil, which augments the authenticity of the story and the characters that people it.
With an intelligent combination of hardboiled cynicism and broad touches of trippy black humour, the film brings alive a benighted universe where life has lost its way in a drug-induced haze.
The film invokes Punjab’s great romantic poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi to accentuate the poignancy of the situation.
The rockstar-protagonist sings of “a girl whose name is love and who is lost” to drive home the evaporation of charm and beauty from the lives of the youth.
In the first 40 minutes of its second half, Udta Punjab is literally trapped in darkness. Director of photography Rajeev Ravi lenses the night-time scenes with great skill, setting up the eventual opening out into a burst of brightness accompanied by an eruption of cathartic violence.
Chaubey’s third venture underscores, like Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya did, the originality of his directorial voice.
He imparts heady propulsion to a grim theme and constructs an unflinching narrative that does not shy from calling out the forces responsible for Punjab’s undeserved plight.
Udta Punjab takes flight without wasting a second – from the very moment the title appears on a flying heroin pouch hurled from across the border by a discus thrower.
It cruises along at an even pace right until the crackling climax, which is shockingly bloody but remarkably effective.
Chaubey’s robust directorial style, which enmeshes sharp characterization with evocative use of music (composer Amit Trivedi is in fine fettle here), keeps the tale on the boil even during the occasional stretches where it teeters on the edge of over-articulation.
A pop star Tommy Singh, a nameless Bihari migrant girl, a cynical policeman Sartaj Singh and a doctor who runs a de-addiction centre (Kareena Kapoor Khan) are thrown into dangerous disarray in a climate vitiated by the easy availability of drugs.
Two metaphors – one delivered in the form of a physical prop, the other as a visual refrain – define the plight of the pop star-hero and the girl who gives him a purpose in life.
As the film hurtles towards its climax, we see the male protagonist in winged shoes, but limping.
On the other hand, a tourism hoarding exhorting people to “go Goa” is the only thing that the entrapped girl can see from the room where she is held captive.
Both have the will but are severely held back by their circumstances, which is, by extension, a commentary on the current state of the state of Punjab itself.
The character that overshadows everyone else in Udta Punjab is that of the poor farm worker played with intensity and passion by Bhatt.
The girl’s misfortune falls literally from the sky in the form of a heroin packet. Greed gets the better of her and she ends up in a hell-hole.