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Udta Punjab: Conservative's miscalculation, liberal's fantasy

Last updated on: July 05, 2016 15:27 IST

'Is there a connection between the way we pitched the entire issue of Udta Punjab's censorship and the apologetic, full-of-very-specific-answers tone of the movie?
Maybe it's just me, but as an Indian liberal, I am more scared of us liberals than I am of the average Indian conservative bloke,' says Sreehari Nair.

Shahid Kapoor in Udta Punjab

IMAGE: 'Maybe it's just me,' says Sreehari Nair, 'but perhaps if we could -- now that the vapours of the issue have settled down -- just sit back and honestly think about Udta Punjab and whether it was made for that drug-addicted-Punjabi-on-the-street or for the comfort of us liberals-in-a-theatre-seat, the answers might just upset us.'

Maybe it's just me, but I think our propensity of turning the worst conservative tendencies into a joke or a call for a revolution, only results in us feeling good about ourselves.

Maybe it's just me, but perhaps if we could -- now that the vapours of the issue have settled down -- just sit back and honestly think about Udta Punjab and whether it was made for that drug-addicted-Punjabi-on-the-street or for the comfort of us liberals-in-a-theatre-seat, the answers might just upset us.

Let us, for a while, not lose ourselves in the housing project of concern and morality, and approach this strictly in the spirit of a sociological case-study.

Did it ever strike you during the course of Udta Punjab, if there are, perhaps, aspects to Punjabis that make them extra-susceptible to putting themselves on the line?

My assumption is that a Punjabi, complete with his innate boisterousness, his talent for blind adulation, and his capacity for self-love (referring to himself in the 'third person' comes more organically to a Punjabi than to most people), is a natural contender for chasing new experiences and the rush that stimulants offer.

I am wrong here perhaps, but without choice. And that's because, I, the self-congratulating viewer, am forced to do what the director of Udta Punjab -- because he is too busy playing the role of a neat liberal -- doesn't; which is, get at the psychological connections that may exist between the Punjabi way of life and the state's rampaging drug scene.

Shahid Kapoor in Udta Punjab

IMAGE: 'The movie is set in a universe where snorting-and-living exists as a single word and where the ruins have become the preferred getaways. They say every soul offers its own peculiar scream when it's torn and Udta Punjab, says Sreehari Nair, 'implies that numbness is the scream of the drug-addicted soul.'

Udta Punjab is not a bad film, but it is a film that commits the fundamental liberal error: Of not living through the stages of a problem before attempting to kill it.

If I have been tending toward left-conservatism, it's due largely to this tendency of liberal arts: Of not realising that every social evil is not just a crisis waiting for a solution but something that has a life of its own.

Because Abhishek Chaubey drops you straight into the tragic pool and offers you no quarter thereon, you don't really feel the horrors of his characters.

So you fall back on the coached textbook responses: Sneering at their pathetic lives, acknowledging their emptiness, and offering their moral and spiritual poverty your deepest condolences.

By the end, you may find yourself floating with the exhausted poise of a cafe-society intellectual. 'Can we have the next social cause, please?'

The movie is set in a universe where snorting-and-living exists as a single word and where the ruins have become the preferred getaways. They say every soul offers its own peculiar scream when it's torn and Udta Punjab implies that numbness is the scream of the drug-addicted soul.

The anomie of the movie lacks an unmistakable logic and redemption is hinted at when voices from the past echo in the characters' present. Even hurt is an annotation here. And when emotions become annotations, labels come about easy.

'An important movie, this.'

'Important why?'

'Because it points to a menace that, I know, is very much a reality. And because the government is not doing anything about it. And because this movie is an eye-opener.'

'And how is it an eye-opener if you knew almost everything there is to know about it?'

'Well, not my eyes, perhaps. I am talking about that old Gujarati lady, who sat beside me, on seat N17, munching on her Nachos, who I am sure knew nothing about the drug scene in Punjab.'

Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab

IMAGE: Director 'Abhishek Chaubey has a talent for working with actors and here again he gives them the space to improvise and flesh out their muddled motivations.'

See the point, if only obliquely? Udta Punjab is important to that conscientious audience member who wants his ignorant counterpart at the movie-theatre to learn something from it. It is the public learning experience, as endorsed by the already-learned.

But make no mistake. There's enough manna here to feed everyone's ego.

Notice, for example, the scenes that elicit the loudest laughs: When a Punjabi police officer asks his subordinate to 'Whatsapp' him after he has reached home; when a garishly made-up woman is referred to as Lady Gaga; when Alia Bhatt's Bihari character drolly identifies herself as Mary Jane.

The idea is to make you, the audience member, feel superior to the characters on the screen. And when the characters mimic your everyday rituals and use your chosen terms and phrases, there's the template-joke of the little man wanting to be like the big man: YOU. Ah, the perfect liberal idea of fun.

It's said that art must aim to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. However, Udta Punjab's primary fixation is with desensitising the comfortable. And the 'disturbed'? 'Oh, it's a different war they are fighting.'

2016 gave us Thithi and Maheshinte Prathikaram, two great movies that demonstrated a rural morality, a morality of the bottom -- and how there's an inherent intelligence and intricacy about that sort of morality. This, though, is a journal, eager to show us the sick-soul-of-Punjab.

Abhishek Chaubey has a talent for working with actors and here again he gives them the space to improvise and flesh out their muddled motivations.

Chaubey is, however, also noticeably styleless. And I am not protesting because he doesn't lapse into directorial pyrotechnics. What I mean is that Chaubey lacks a serious commitment to discovering a style that would lend his narratives a cinematic brio.

Though it is a favourite of many of our critics, the style-and-substance theory doesn't just lead to a nebulous dissection of the movies, it also overrides a facet of the medium we derive pleasure from unconsciously: style as an indispensable accompaniment to substance, and in some cases the thing about movies that affects you sensually; that rudders the substance in them.

And Udta Punjab -- divorced from the pulpy comforts of Chaubey's earlier two films -- in a way, exposes Chaubey's stylelessness. It curls into didacticism, and almost naturally so.

Rajeev Ravi, who for some reason has developed a sudden fascination, for holding his camera a little too close to the actors' faces, does his bit to aid the instructive pitch. I was looking for some denseness, but because Ravi's camera hardly leaves the faces, whatever details pop up, all look 'planned' and 'set up for applauses.'

The movie doesn't feel like it is unfolding in front of you and consequently its dread, too, hits you like a pre-recorded Town Hall message.

Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab

IMAGE: 'She hardly speaks 30 words before that meeting, but has an inherent strength about her and so when she opens her mouth it feels like the idol of a temple had just broken into sound.'

There is one great scene involving Alia Bhatt and Shahid Kapoor. And though it's more of a toast to the writing and the actors -- who are generous about hand-holding us through their respective train-wrecks -- the scene feels 'alive' because it goes beyond just stating the obvious banality of drugs.

He is the existentialist, who has had a sudden realisation of the pointlessness of his colourful life, and is contemplating suicide; suicide in the most self-proclaimed sense of the term.

And she is the realist, who knows how drab her entire life has been, but still dreams that 'perfect dream.'

There is, in that scene, exposition working like emotional release as on the stage, random lines dispersed in the air that hover around and find their mates, and a sadness that lies beyond the evident.

She hardly speaks 30 words before that meeting, but has an inherent strength about her and so when she opens her mouth it feels like the idol of a temple had just broken into sound. Chiding him for imposing his negativity upon her, she creates a context for all the chaos and the movie threatens to break out, before closing down yet again.

Udta Punjab, like I said, is not bad, but it's disappointing nevertheless because it is such a one-tone poem. Weird as this may sound, its single-minded focus for its subject-matter is, maybe, the movie's biggest undoing.

I was hoping it would be a tragicomedy; a richer portrait, with finer strokes, devoid of any obvious lessons.

I was also secretly hoping that it would be the tragicomic tone of the movie, which would make the Censor Board uneasy. For if that happened, we would then be advancing the whole debate surrounding 'Freedom of Expression' a little further; extending its bounds to the critical argument of whether sensitivity should be an integral component of 'Free Expression' and if it should be, does that dilute the essence of the term itself?

Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab

IMAGE: 'Udta Punjab, like I said, is not bad, but it's disappointing nevertheless because it is such a one-tone poem. Weird as this may sound, its single-minded focus for its subject-matter is, maybe, the movie's biggest undoing,' says Sreehari Nair.

That we turned the battle of an artist, his basic democratic right to put his unphrased thoughts out for public viewing, into a romantic notion that this is a message-giving movie that must be cleared because 'it can improve a complex social situation,' speaks as much about our infantile ideas of 'the purpose of art' as it does about the Censor Board's infantile ideas of 'artistic limits.'

Are our fights relating to 'Freedom of Expression' only concerned with protecting the freedom of art that tends to message-giving?

As a corollary, doesn't that child-like tongue which lacks polish, which is mocked on Social Media for being insensitive and immature, also have the same right to 'Freedom of Expression?'

So is this, then, essentially a battle for an artist's right OR is it a superficial battle concerned primarily with projecting 'good taste?'

When it comes to 'Freedom of Expression,' aren't the liberals as preventive as the conservatives?

Are we climbing on the shoulders of the most-crippled conservatives to display our 'liberal\' tag?

Is there a connection between the way we pitched the entire issue of Udta Punjab's censorship and the apologetic, full-of-very-specific-answers tone of the movie?

If there is indeed a connection, doesn't this cease being an outlined battle and become a never-ending battle?

A battle in which 'nobody wins' precisely because 'everybody walks out feeling like a winner on some level.'

A battle where the liberal fantasises, the conservative gets irked for all the wrong reasons, and the artist takes a leave of absence.

Sreehari Nair