There is a moment in the film, Udta Punjab, when a rockstar with an admirable range urinates over his hostile audience. He does this because he was in the middle of a serious speech about drug abuse but his audience asks him to shut up and sing. (Also, he is on cocaine.) Something of this nature happens all the time in art. A self-aware artiste bores his audience by trying to convey a reformatory message, then he showers contempt on them claiming they are all dumb addicts of fun.
The triumph of Udta Punjab is that it is wary of sermon, and never disrespects the power of entertainment.
The urination scene is the only portion of the film that was cut before it was released for public viewing. The chief of the Central Board of Film Certification, Pahlaj Nihalani, in the way of crawling when his political masters only asked him to bend, had wanted many cuts. The creators of the film fought back in court and won their right to preserve almost everything.
In their defence of the film, the artistes were forced to claim that it is a product of high morality. That is not entirely true, fortunately. It is a work of commercial art whose primary goal is to entertain, which includes unsettling and moving us. In the process it conveys a moral tale because morality is an exquisite plot device and indispensable if you want to complete a popular story. In fact, it is hard to entertain us without being moral. Not all of us, of course. Some men in the hall where I watched the film, in Gurgaon, laughed aloud when a girl recounts her rape.
Even so, nothing reforms society as entertainment can.
In Udta Punjab, a singer trapped in coke addiction and the adoration of fools, is liberated when a woman who is fleeing from a drug cartel gives him purpose that is beyond seeking pleasure. It is a ruthless story, hence unpredictable. The drug addiction among the youth of Punjab promoted by a sick political system is the brooding tension derived from indisputable facts. The singer, too, promotes drugs by glorifying them in his hugely popular songs. That, too, is derived from reality. In the real world, such powerful influences are countered by activism, which is pitiably inadequate. The war against drugs requires the full force of commercial cinema, which is what Udta Punjab provides, and it does so entirely because it did not set out to reform, it set out to entertain.
Nihalani’s cuts would have impoverished the film. He wanted all mentions of ‘Punjab’, ‘MP’, ‘party’ and ‘Parliament’ removed, which would have made the film look lame and unconvincing, and deprived it of people and concepts that we accept everyday as despicable evil. He wanted the deletion of “visuals of scratching/itching side portion of Sardar”, from a song. It is a beautiful moment, at once comic and tense, that creates a sense of danger as a girl walks down a village lane. Everything that offended Nihalani, including the expletives and the fact that a dog is called ‘Jackie Chan’, entertain or affect us pushing us towards accepting the moral of the story.This is beyond the capabilities of ‘social-message’ cinema.
As in journalism, in art, too, there is an infestation of activism. The social agenda and the high moral ground have become substitutes for artistic talent. Mediocrity so often survives in cinema and literature as morality. It does survive in other forms, too, but the type of ordinariness that has the glow of ideology has properties of a disease. People tend to collect their own. As a result activists collect more activists and entrench themselves in some parts of art, condemning the entertaining, the dramatic, the funny, the beautiful and the stylish as lesser beings. The talented among the young grow up having false notions about art. It would be years before they extricate themselves from the lie, before they realise that in the core of art is talent, not grouse. Can there be anything more lowbrow than the self-righteous whine that you are better than the world.
“The primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.)” wrote writer Susan Sontag, “Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.” It is true though that she herself is often referred to as an activist.
The moral lament of activism is so infectious that it has spread beyond art and journalism. For instance, it has led the tech industry astray. The Silicon Valley billionaires, when they wish to conquer India, unconsciously assume the role of activists. The efforts of Google and Facebook to connect the billion among Indians who do not have access to the Internet is foolishly couched in social service. There is often this obtuse talk of a farmer who would check crop prices online; a poor woman who would get medical advice over the Internet, a bright dark girl who would learn about the world on Wikipedia. The Internet captured the world because it was fun. That would be the same reason why it would spread among the poor. Billionaires, bureaucrats and politicians tend to overlook the fact that fun, too, is a fundamental right. Prime Minister Narendra Modi even managed to make the spacefaring Elon Musk seem boring. After a visit to Tesla’s campus, Modi tweeted “Enjoyed discussion on how battery technology can help farmers.”
Politicians, who use entertainment to lure voters, know the power of entertainment. Fun, like good commercial cinema, has transformative powers. That is why they are so often a system against fun.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed are personal