“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
Danny Boyle’s masterful 1996 film opened with Mark Renton running through the streets. It caused a small revolution encircled by all things political, moral and societal; at the center of it, a dizzying, unholy spiral of drug addiction. Lives lost, families destroyed, human wills broken: this war on drugs escalated so fast it became as individual as it was encompassing.
And its victims need our help.
Abhishek Chaubey’s fearless and absolutely terrifying Udta Punjab turns the mirror on us. How we failed our nation’s youth. This failure isn’t carried only by corrupt police officials who take their cut and let the drugs be sold without prescription or control. The failure isn’t just on the part of a government whose workers are more bent on profiteering than on saving actual human lives. The failure is ours. Every single one of us, who stood by and let our brothers and sisters in the beautiful, holy land of Punjab suffer. They suffered for our mistakes. But we can start mending it. Little by little, starting now.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that in a film full of electrifyingly authentic performances, Alia Bhatt’s acting stands out. Everything her character is subjected to, every fight she puts up; it is a horrible, brutally honest, emotionally naked playing field. And her acting chops elevate its uncomfortable crudeness into something damn near spiritual.
This is an urgent film. It borrows the unrestricted anger and fist-shaking intelligence at injustice from Spike Lee (WAKE UP!). It borrows the metaphorical light at the end of the toilet from Trainspotting. It borrows dark, DARK humour from Tarantino. But it is explicitly and fearlessly Indian. I’ve been to Punjab with my family, and believe me when I tell you, it is a state whose people, culture, faith and language are beautiful and kind and generous and have hearts of gold. And now this wonderfully magical place has turned into a literal warzone because of a menace we can’t seem to get a hold of.
Udta Punjab’s status as a work of art cannot be judged solely based on aesthetic merit. This film is WAY too important for that. After crossing through so many hurdles of censorship and right-wing propaganda, the film has finally released in a theater near you. Please go and watch it. It needs to be seen.
And afterwards, in place of being film critics and poking around for plot holes, maybe we can have a discussion about helping our countrymen who are wasting away at the hands of this monstrosity through no fault of their own.
Maybe Udta Punjab is the last push we need to say ‘enough’ and start doing something about this. Hats off, team Phantom. The country owes a great debt to you.