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Udta Punjab: A standout performance by Alia

There’s a lot in Udta Punjab that director and writer Abhishek Chaubey gets right. Perhaps his biggest achievement is the wry tone of his storytelling.

movie reviews Updated: Jun 17, 2016 22:20 IST
Deepanjana Pal
This may be Chaubey’s most ambitious film so far, and even though it’s also his weakest, it’s still head and shoulders above the average Bollywood fare.
This may be Chaubey’s most ambitious film so far, and even though it’s also his weakest, it’s still head and shoulders above the average Bollywood fare.

UDTA PUNJAB

Director: Abhishek Chaubey

Actors: Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Alia Bhatt, Diljit Dosanjh

Rating: ***

On the face of it, Udta Punjab has everything going for it. Shahid Kapoor spends much of his screen time shirtless: win. He’s in a film with Kareena Kapoor Khan: another win (even if they don’t have a single scene together). Alia Bhatt delivers a virtuoso performance as a migrant worker. Diljit Dosanjh makes his Bollywood debut, shows off his comic timing as well as hero-wallah charm, and gets the girl (sort of).

The cinematography by Rajeev Ravi is stylish, clever and breathtakingly beautiful in moments, without seeming contrived. The soundtrack is catchy. The subject — drug abuse in Punjab — is provocative and the controversies surrounding the film’s certification have generated at least double the publicity of a conventional campaign.

There’s a lot in Udta Punjab that director and writer Abhishek Chaubey gets right. Perhaps his biggest achievement is the wry tone of his storytelling. Udta Punjab is made up of depressing stories, but even while being sensitive to this toxic problem that’s clogging Punjab’s veins, Chaubey’s direction and co-writer Sudip Sharma’s punchy dialogue manages to keep despair at bay. A thread of humour runs through the darkest moments — as in the conversation between two cops have about whether a truck driver is trying to turn Punjab into Mexico.

Chaubey also draws powerful performances from almost everyone on his cast except Shahid and Kareena. If Udta Punjab was an average Bollywood film, then these two stars wouldn’t have stood out. Unfortunately for them, Alia Bhatt and the supporting cast — particularly the dirty cop Jujhar Singh and the young addict Balli — are brilliant. They’ve all immersed themselves in their roles, even if those playing just a two-bit junkie. Bhatt downplays her natural cuteness and brings out exquisitely the vulnerability and grit of a migrant woman trapped in a drug lord’s mansion.

Alia Bhatt brings out exquisitely the vulnerability and grit of a migrant woman trapped in a drug lord’s mansion.

Read More: Did Udta Punjab to break the stereotype, says Alia Bhatt

Along with Bhatt and the Punjabi cast of the film, Udta Punjab’s decision to attack the political establishment deserves the loudest round of applause. The film bravely lays bare how selfishly Punjab’s politicians have encouraged drug abuse, particularly while campaigning ahead of elections. Bhatt is incandescent when, as the dispossessed and exploited, she rants about all the awful, self-destructive decisions she’s taken because she fell for the promise of “achchha time”.

And yet, for all the flash, dazzle and power of Udta Punjab, the film is ultimately deeply dissatisfying. The pace is uneven and it struggles to do justice to the many strands of the plot. For instance, it begins with a beautiful little episode involving a Pakistani shot putter, but the across-the-border angle is left unexplored. The love stories in the film waste precious time and are half-baked. Post-interval, coincidences are as prevalent as drugs, making it ludicrously simple for an earnest doctor-cop duo to unearth the nexus between politicians and drugs suppliers as Chaubey rushes to tie up the many loose ends.

Udta Punjab may be Chaubey’s most ambitious film so far, and even though it’s also his weakest, it’s still head and shoulders above the average Bollywood fare. Go watch it.

(Deepanjana Pal is managing editor of NewsLaundry)