„Udta Punjab“ – Punjab on a high – is a film that was in the headlines before coming out on June 17th in India. The film is fictional but inspired by facts of severe drug abuse and drug mafia structures in Punjab, a North-Indian state on the border to Pakistan.
The Indian Central Board of Film Certification wanted the film-directors to make over ninety cuts, considering the scenes of drug abuse not appropriate even for adult viewers. The Board normally certifies films to give an age recommendation. The Bombay High Court overruled the film certifying board and allowed the release of the film with one single cut – a rockstar urinating in front of a crowd – stating that it was not the Board’s duty to censor films but to certify them.
Severe drug abuse is a major problem in Punjab, an agricultural state which has not much to offer to its youth since agriculture is a shrinking market because of water shortage. Experts estimate, that up to 20% of the young men in Punjab could be using drugs, heroin having become the most easily available drug in the last 5 years.
The film draws parallels to a real Punjab organized crime case, showing local politicians and police involved in drug dealing, while campaigning openly against drug abuse, as well as a famous Punjab rock singer openly speaking about his own drug use in and praising drugs his songs.
Four people are portrayed in the film. Their stories eventually bring them together in their fight against drugs. An addicted rock singer, who lands in jail, an orphan from Bihar being drugged and prostituted by the local drug mafia, a police officer who’s brother gets addicted, and a doctor running a drug rehab clinic and fighting against the drug mafia together with the police officer.
The cast is the best Bollywood has to offer: Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Diljit Dosanhj. Although characters are partially strongly over exaggerated – a Bollywood phenomena – the film openly talk about how police networks and politicians make huge profits on the back of Punjab’s youth getting drug addicted.
The plot picks up dramatically during the second half of the movie and ends in a merciless climax. Happy ends are there only for the orphan girl who manages to escape her torturers at the price of stabbing one to death. The rehab doctor is killed by one of her patients. The policeman shoots several people uncovering a drug mafia plot, the rock star ends up in prison again.
The two and a half hours are a fine example of socially critical and independent cinema in India, choosing a big Hollywood cast to get enough attention from the media. It is certainly not one of the usual „escapist movies“ that Bollywood produces in thousands. You won’t leave the movie theater upbeat, but Udta Punjab certainly shows a parts of the dramatic reality of Punjabs youth, mixed with some slapstick moments.
Though the movie was targeted at a niche audience, Udta Punjab is doing pretty well at the box offices. It could even find an international audience.