Bring on the dark, trippy Punjab

Sweet, spontaneous Punjabiyat in Hindi movies, and what ‘Udta Punjab’ does to that tradition


Shahid Kapoor in Udta Punjab, 2016
Shahid Kapoor in Udta Punjab, 2016

In Hindi movies, Punjabiyat is male invincibility, oestrogen on steroids, and all-round hysteria in the name of spontaneity and fun. In the few clips from Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab that played on loop on news channels on the day the film’s makers moved the Bombay high court, it wasn’t all that unfamiliar a Punjab, if you ask someone who has never lived in the state and knows most things Punjabi through Hindi films. There is spontaneity and hysteria in those clips. Ignorance of each other’s states and cities is possible in such a huge country, isn’t it? We are content in our little bubbles and guarded little perfections. Hindi movies unite us with their simplified, cosmetized memes.

You can see madness and hyperbolic unrest in the images of the drug-addled rock star, Udta Punjab’s protagonist, played by Shahid Kapoor, and the other characters around him. The film’s music, by Amit Trivedi, has bhangra, but with raspier melodic contours. The tessellated thrums of the dhol and the tumbi, which usually define 90% of wedding or party songs in Hindi movies, are an afterthought in the soundtrack.

The really different part about Udta Punjab is its subject. It is a film about Punjab’s malaise, not the candyfloss madness we are used to. Google Punjab and drugs together, and you will find unending scrolls of information about the deeply entrenched problem of drug addiction among its young population.

Whether the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) was politically motivated in directing the film’s producers to hack language and parts of the film is in the realm of speculation if you don’t want to believe the Aam Aadmi Party’s eloquent spokespersons. Incidentally, the cuts include “Jacky Chain”, the name of a dog in the film. If, in fact, the government had directed the CBFC to stall Udta Punjab’s release as an image-saving exercise before the state elections, it boomeranged. Everybody now wants to watch the film.

What’s clearer than ever before is that the Union government’s moral authorities—one repository of which is the CBFC—are uncomfortable with ugliness, with trippers and naysayers, pierced, purple veins, with rock ‘n’ roll, dark humour and horrible deaths. Censorship allows control over such ideas and images.

So logically, as long as the censor board and Pahlaj Nihalani stay, sunny Punjabiyat will stay. While I believe nobody with a will to live and without a dead serious, intellectual yen for jazz can resist bhangra once in a while—seriously, how effectively can the Gallan Goodiyaan song from Dil Dhadakne Do lift you out of the dull funk of life? Very effectively.

But we do need more films like Udta Punjab. Just for a taste of the real, and for artistes and film-makers to go on. For that to happen, the dismantling of the CBFC is absolutely necessary.

Udta Punjab reminds me of the songs of Rabbi Shergill, the Punjabi balladeer rock star who burst on to the music scene in the early 2000s. He is nothing like Tommy, Udta Punjab’s lead, but Rabbi too does not care much for the happy, upbeat beat. Again in spirit, and not in style or language, Chaubey is similar to Gurvinder Singh, who made the excellent Punjabi film Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan, set against the backdrop of the Khalistan movement. Like the assured and quiet films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a leading name in Turkish New Wave cinema, Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan is the stark opposite of the Punjabiyat we see in Hindi movies.

Balraj Sahni, Dev Anand, all the Kapoors and all the Chopras are Punjabi. In Indian cinema, they are what the Jews are to Hollywood—the film aristocracy. The shiny, sanitized Punjab of mustard fields, and song and dance that sounds and looks the same, began in the 1990s. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was the pinnacle. But it could also be seen in Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna: Amitabh Bachchan’s character, a virile Punjabi man with a sense of humour, looks at the buttocks of Kirron Kher’s character, a shrill, vivacious Punjabi woman, and says, “Definitely Chandigarh.”

We ought to see more of the real Punjab in our Hindi movies. Gulzar’s Maachis was one and Udta Punjab is a great way forward.

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