As I moved into college, the temptation of drugs did cross my path. Anyone who has ever lived in a hostel knows that there is always a junkie around, tempting others into his haze filled world. But that scene of a broken boy and his devastated parents, kept me from ‘trying’ drugs.
I don’t even remember the name of the serial that aired in Doordardarshan in the late 80s. Google search showed me that it could either be Subah, Chunauti, Nayi Dishayeen or Neev.
Watching Udta Punjab on a Tuesday afternoon, in a multiplex full of college students who struggled with their identity-cards and fought with the ticket seller to prove that they were over 18 (one who was denied ticket for being underage while his three friends were not was consoled thus: ‘Yaar, a copy is available on the net watch it there,’ to which the kid retorted back why aren’t you watching it there, to which the other three giggled), made me proud to be part of Indian filmmaking.
As I watched these kids laugh, guffaw and express shock at the just the right moments in Udta Punjab, I knew the message had got through and that at least a handful of lives in the dark theatre there, had been saved from the drug menace in ways that cannot be recorded, just like I had perhaps been saved once thanks to some great serials on Doordarshan in the 1980s.
Udta Punjab is a propaganda film, a positive propaganda film whose intention is to keep youths away from drugs. In countries where governments have used cinema for propaganda – be it openly as in some communists countries like the erstwhile USSR or surreptitiously like in the USA - they would have not only funded ‘Udta Punjab’ but would have ensured that it reached as many eyeballs as possible.
Because this is a propaganda film minus the boredom and bad filmmaking associated with it. It is entertaining, intriguing, emotional and best of all has what is required of a film such as this - an activist’s zeal.
With its multiple storylines, Udta Punjab tackles many fronts in one film and despite the danger of stumbling, actually manages to pull off a winner and as the name suggests - fly.
Thus you have a popstar (Shahid Kapoor) who sings about drugs, a doctor and ‘NGO woman’ (Kareena Kapoor) who fights this menace, a migrant woman (Alia Bhatt) from Bihar (not many know that Punjab is full of migrants from other states working the fields) who is caught in the crossfire because of her own mistakes and a corrupt cop (Diljit Dosanjh). Each character is not only affected by the drug problem, but is also beaten by it, only for them to rise in the end with the hero’s journey for each character, reaching an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
In an ideal world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi who finds time for the most inane things, would have send a typical message supporting Udta Punjab: “I want to congratulate makers of #UdtaPunjab for giving right message to youth – DO NOT DO DRUGS. Do Yoga Instead.” Wouldn’t that have been a ‘cool’ message to give to the country on World Yoga Day ‘Don’t do drugs. Do Yoga instead.’
But that is not what happened. His appointed man, Pahlaj Nihalani who said he is proud to be a ‘chamcha’ (blind-sycophant) of the PM, tried to disfigure the film by cutting it so bad that even an otherwise spineless Indian film industry had to come together in a show of strength against him.
And that is the most bizzare joke because despite all its boldness, the film actually plays it safe, landing the entire blame, on one MLA despite calling the ‘system’ as being faulty throughout. When did one corrupt MLA become the entire system?
This is not because the writer (Sudip Sharma) and director (Abhishek Chaubey) preferred it so but they knew that the complete truth would have ensured a complete ban. Thus a lot of self-censorship went into its writing and making and on top of that to have the censor board go chop-chop is truly terrible.
The complete truth is that the drug menace rot, as documented since over a decade (I first came to know of it through a Tehelka story 10 years back), runs all the way up. The governing parties of Punjab have obviously benefitted and supported it, but even the ruling centre – be it the previous Congress government or the current BJP, has known but did nothing against it.
Perhaps that is what irked producer Anurag Kashyap most, that even when his writer and director pulled their punches, Pahlaj Nihalani was punching the film to death. And that is what led to his outburst and the fight against the censor board which surprisingly saw a huge turnout of Bollywood biggies and the silence of some who should have spoken up but did not, like BJP loyalist, the otherwise loquacious Ekta Kapoor who is the producer of the film and at the press conference to protest Pahlaj Nihalani’s tailoring skills with the film, was conspicuous by her absolute silence.
That is the irony of a nation that does not have a strong tradition of political filmmaking. Forget the filmmakers in commercial cinema, even those in the indie, parallel cinema, new wave movement (with some notable exceptions) have rarely ever been too bold politically. Few ever dared to show that the rot goes all the way, even in the hey-days of Emergency when the rot was visible in its entirety.
Perhaps that is why the fight of Udta Punjab becomes that much more relevant. If a film which in a way should have been made by the government is being censored and even the token words of appreciation do not reach it, the situation in the nation have obviously reached an abysmal low.
In a way the controversy ended up being good for the film and for the youth. Young people like rebelliousness though they do not have any idea about how to truly rebel. That the censor board did not want the film to be seen, meant that the young guns, for whom the film has been made, wanted to see it.
In an ideal world, the film would have been feted by the public and politicians, given tax exemptions so that it would become cheaper to watch it. College principals would have organised theatre trips for their students to see it even as activists would have complained that the film hasn’t gone all the way.
But who says we live in an ideal world. And for that reason we need more films like Udta Punjab to work, by hook or the crook of the tacit popularity enabled by the censor’s scissors.
Check the video here:
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