The West sometimes doesn’t understand Bollywood, but they can definitely understand how Bollywood influences people. –Anurag Kashyap
Welcome to a new feature on this blog, which I have entitled “What Bollywood Can Teach You About India”! Here, I will be discussing the many things that a Bollywood film can teach a non-Indian newcomer about India! It’s going to be deeply exciting, and filled with snarkiness and spoilers, so please, if you don’t want to know exactly what happens in the movie discussed or you plan to be deeply offended by sarcastic humor-oriented critique of that movie, look away now.
To start this thing off right, I’m going to talk about a new film whose release is the cause for much controversy and conversation, Udta Punjab. Loosely translated to “Punjab is flying” or “Punjab is high” this film examines the issues of drug sales and addiction in Punjab, the state in India that was carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey during partition, the home of the most represented ethnic group in Bollywood, and a place in which some 60% or more of the youth population of the state are reported to be addicted to drugs, primarily your hard-core options, i.e. heroin and it’s cheaper but no less deadly alternatives.
Now, first and foremost, this is a very serious issue in Punjab, and I applaud the film for tackling it, the actors and crew for working on it, and the fact that beyond anything else, the film has supported a dialogue and a national awareness that could potentially lead to change. Regardless of the story, or whatever snark I’m about to heap on it, the film is well done and the effort is significant and important and pays off with a product that many people find moving, gripping and emotionally resonant. And that, more than anything else, is a triumph.
THAT BEING SAID, onto the life lessons of Bollywood!
Okay, to Udta Punjab starts with this awesome and difficult to watch montage of people in Punjab doing drugs. That’s tough, going from club drugs to rural addicts and showing the issue reaching into every sphere and class. Oy. People doing drugs in an abandoned railway car. That’s not what the British had in mind when they built you those, India!
On top of this is the work of Tommy Singh. Lesson #1! Tommy is a common and acceptable name in Punjab. Cool. Good to know. Tommy is super into drugs and he sings about it, and yet everyone is REAL surprised when he gets arrested for drug possession in, like, twenty minutes. Guys. He was very clear, did you not hear the lyrics? Lesson #2! In the Indian music industry, being literal is a plus, both for your fans, and for the police. Tommy is supported by a family business situation because he’s Indian and that’s how it works. That’s nice. It’s good to stick with tradition.
Meanwhile you have an unnamed woman played by Alia Bhatt, so I’m going to call her Alia Bhatt. She’s from Bihar, she likes field hockey, she doesn’t like her new position working the fields. When she finds drugs thrown over the Pakistani border (aw, thanks, Pakistan! Also, this never comes up again, that this one packet of drugs is, like, thrown over the border, but all the other drugs are just manufactured in Punjab and then everyone is like, those drugs were worth so much money but then everyone else seems to just bring the drugs in on trucks so, like, what was that one dude doing throwing heroin like a discus over the Pakistan India border, like aren’t there enough problems in terms of India Pakistan relations? And then everyone just has heroin all the time and clearly they aren’t waiting for another border throw so I’m not sure how drugs actually get anywhere in Punjab but it frankly doesn’t seem like an efficient system and maybe that’s for the best. ) Alia Bhatt is like, what is this? I will take it, and keep it, and then I will figure out it’s worth money, and then I will sell it! But selling heroin is apparently a lot harder than selling weed in college which is a shame because I think Alia Bhatt would make a great weed dealer. She’s a terrible heroin dealer, mostly because she doesn’t know what heroin is, like, Jesus, Bihari Alia Bhatt, do you not listen to Jazz????? Lesson #3! Biharis don’t know about Miles Davis.
So Alia Bhatt is captured after destroying the drugs and forced to sexually service the drug dealers in recompense for the heroin she destroyed, and when she fights back they inject her with heroin which leads me back to the whole but how do they have all this heroin to waste on Alia Bhatt if they are only getting it by random evening throws over the border I don’t understand the scale of this organization! Also, everything that is happening to Alia Bhatt is awful and painful to watch. Lesson #4! Punjab doesn’t seem like a great place to be a woman.
Somewhere nearby but also potentially far away? (Lesson #5! Punjab is both small and large. It’s whatever size you want it to be!) a police officer named Sartaj played by Diljit Dosanjh who wears a uniform when he has to but sweater vests any chance he gets takes kickbacks for letting drugs into (the border? the region? unclear) and feels totally cool about that because think of how many sweater vests he can buy with that money!
Lesson #6 is maybe the biggest lesson of all after the really important drug one, and it is, SWEATER VESTS ARE ALSO A PUNJAB BASED ADDICTiON. The sweater vest is real, and alive, in Punjab. The sweater vest count for this movie is legit out of control. No one is immune to its wooly unattractive charms. Men, women, people fighting for and against drugs, the sweater vest is the one true unifier of Punjab.
Even Kareena Kapoor Khan’s character, Dr. Preet Sahni, wears, like, four different ones. They button up the front and they are hideous. Her hair is also not great, but that’s actually kind of lovely, because it reflects the kind of strange misguided hairstyles I see a lot here in Mumbai in that it has this weird front pouf thing which makes women look like 1980’s diner waitresses and it also has a strange and egregious number of clips and scrunchies. It’s troubling, because no one needs that to keep their hair in place, and it’s concerning, because you want better for the world. I’m glad they did that, because it feels very real to me. Lesson #7, that hair is out there, and it’s real. Someone needs to open up a ballerina bun how-to business in Punjab because that would make a fortune.
Lesson #8? The police are hella corrupt in Punjab. Sartaj gets a massive kickback for letting drugs come in across the border (is it the border? A checkpoint? UNCLEAR.) and he uses that kickback to support his family, included his dead-eyed younger brother Balli who is also getting a kick…out of heroin! Or something kind of like it! Also, everyone else like sleeps in the courtyard but somehow that kid has his own room where he can do all his heroin-like stuff. I don’t get how that family allocates space. But I do know that you can tell something’s off with that kid because he never wears a sweater vest. Sartaj is one of those “not in my house” willfully blind guys, so when his brother overdoses and ends up in Dr. Sahni’s clinic he’s like, what, drug addiction, Punjab, this is total news to me! even though he’s letting truck loads of the stuff in daily because I guess that’s all cops do in Punjab? Seriously, he’s never even doing paperwork or anything, he just arrests Tommy Singh once and then mostly hangs out with other cops at a checkpoint. Lesson #8 corrected, the police are hella corrupt and also don’t really have that much to do in Punjab.
Dr. Sahni drops some truth bombs on Sartaj about drugs, the fact that everyone is doing them, and the fact that as an inept law enforcer is his, perhaps, a part of this problem. Kareena Kapoor Khan’s truth bombs are very gentle, like meringues, because Kareena Kapoor Khan spends this entire movie being a pale well-educated lady who knows how to use the internet to research corrupt politicians but has never done so before because, I don’t know, hobbies? Basically Kareena Kapoor Khan’s character is not very interesting or complex, although she does balance out Alia Bhatt in this whole virgin-whore dichotomy which really helps Udta Punjab fail the Bechdel Test, taking us back to Lesson #4, Punjab is not a great place to be a woman.
Sartaj, reeling from the truth bomb attack, puts Tommy Singh in normal people jail not rockstar jail which, just like everything else in India, looks exactly the same, but there are more people. Lesson #9, in India, money buys you privacy. Tommy is scared, because poor people are scary, and he probably knows that they don’t have any cocaine. Interesting fair point, Tommy is all about that coke, which makes sense, because he has a lot of money, but everyone else is all heroin all the way, which paints a fine line between drugs of privilege and drugs of poverty. Lesson #10, drugs in Punjab are a lot like drugs all over the world. Anyway, in prison two kids sing Tommy one of his own songs, talking about how he’s their idol, until they are shushed by an old man who reminds them that they killed their mother because she wasn’t giving them money for drugs. Which is very awful, and has actually happened, and clearly affects Tommy deeply. Or maybe he’s just thinking about his haram pant collection. It’s hard to tell with Shahid Kapoor.
Sartaj decides he wants to fight the war on drugs, which he initially does by beating up the supplier he usually lets into the country? region? again, unclear. Sartaj thinks the drug problem is a lot smaller than it is if that’s going to be the one thing that ends the narcotics trade in Punjab. Spoiler alert, it does not, but he takes a personal day, because emotional revelations are difficult. He decides to team up with Dr. Sahni, because she is literally the only person he’s ever met who told him drugs were bad, and he has to visit his brother in rehab anyway, so, like, might as well. Also, he doesn’t really have much work as a police officer, as we’ve discussed. So they get together, and with a little sleuthing (and I really mean a LITTLE sleuthing, it takes them, like, four days to figure out how everything is interconnected and how this major politician is also somehow a drug kingpin and, like, no one else has every noticed because lesson #11, the media in Punjab does not know how to do its damn JOB) they uncover this conspiracy, break into a warehouse so they can, I don’t know, see the drugs in action? That’s less clear, and put together a printed paper folder that they somehow have to make together despite the fact that this is clearly not a two person job, because this vitally important document that holds the key to disassembling the drug trade in Punjabi is apparently at the level of a 9th grade school project. Lesson #12, Punjab has yet to hear about the zip drive or the concept of email. Punjab! Get the net!
Meanwhile, back at the drug mansion, Alia Bhatt is super addicted to heroin, although the timeline is unclear. They seem to be keeping her around both for themselves and to entertain visitors, like Sartaj’s boss when he comes by, who hilariously makes a comment about Alia Bhatt’s tiny size. One of the drug mansion denizens/workers takes a shine to Alia Bhatt and makes her take selfies with him which is totally a real thing that happens all the time in Punjab and I know because that happened to me in Punjab so Alia Bhatt and I are basically the same person now. Lesson #13, selfies are big in Punjab! One night they leave all the doors open because that’s how you run a successful drug mansion I guess, I wouldn’t know, I’ve never tried, and Alia Bhatt gets out and runs away.
Tommy Singh is giving an anti-drug concert somewhere nearby (seriously Punjab could be any size, it is so deeply unclear) but he’s having a hard time getting himself together after realizing that his pro-drug philosophy and literal lyrics have had some negative effects on the world around him. His cousin helpfully gives him some cocaine, because family cares. He tries to not do the cocaine but then he totally does the cocaine and he ruins his hairdressers hours of work by shaving the word loser into his head. Lesson #14, people in Punjab have no respect for the hard work of others! He then, in a perplexing outfit that includes not one but two vests, not of the sweater variety, but I’m saying close enough, gives a concert that is more spoken word poetry than pro-drug anthem. His audience is troubled by this, so Tommy pees on them. Note: the censor board demanded cuts to this scene, but the irony is now it looks like he’s masturbating on the crowd which is much more graphic, so nice try, censor board! The concert ends in a riot, so he runs off and meets Alia Bhatt and they talk about their dreams or whatever, and, like, cuddle in a pile of hay, and at some point Tommy claims to be twenty-two to which it is clear that Alia Bhatt, who actually does really good work in this movie, is trying not to laugh because she actually is something close to twenty-two while Shahid Kapoor is on the far side of 35. Anyway, this is supposed to be emotionally resonant or something. Lesson #15, the best way to meet someone in Punjab is on the run from your drug addiction and your problems, it’s a total meet-cute!
So Alia Bhatt goes back to the drug mansion and her selfie-boyfriend who slaps her and calls her baby and she decides to get off drugs which she does after a night of putting cloth in her mouth. Lesson #15, withdrawal somehow works fundamentally differently in Punjab. Point is, she’s okay now, heroin free and feeling good. Meanwhile, Tommy Singh decides to drop everything to find her, despite the fact that there is a warrant for his arrest and his uncle has been arrested. When confronted by his cousin who is like, are you kidding, 99 Problems, dude! But Tommy has no respect for the lessons of Jay-Z, so he goes off in his sweatshirt vest and winged sneakers to get his girl. This is the drug addled Bihari farm worker he met one time. True romance.
Remember Balli? Sartaj’s addict brother? His rehab isn’t going so well, maybe because he hasn’t heard of Alia Bhatt’s cloth-in-mouth method. So he breaks out and accidentally kills Dr. Sahni, which is a bummer because she’s just asked Sartaj out on a date. Talk about a cock-block, Balli! Sartaj comes by while his boss from the police is staging the scene to look like a break in gone wrong. He’s also discovered the folder of information which, again, is why they should have gone digital with this one. So his boss takes Sartaj to the drug mansion, which is some distance that is totally unclear away, and this is great because Alia Bhatt has gotten clean and is ready to stab her captors to death with a large nail from the wall, and Tommy’s on his way with a hockey stick biking across the region.
So everyone meets up at the drug mansion and it’s a blood bath and together they kill everyone. Drug problem in Punjab solved? Probably not. So Alia Bhatt ends up on a beach in Goa with Tommy’s family who have patched things up with him now that he’s in jail, and Sartaj, I don’t know what happens to that guy or his brother who somehow survives the movie despite having maybe 10 lines.
So! Lots of lessons learned about Punjab. I actually went to Punjab, to see Amritsar and the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, and I only really noticed that it’s a hard place for women (combine the creepy staring of Delhi with the fact that men aggressively followed us around) that selfies are big in Punjab, like the rest of India, and that the sweater vest is alive and well. So I think that Udta Punjab is a useful learning experience!
In all seriousness, the main central lesson of the film is a vital and important one, and, frankly, the story they chose to tell is not all that important in the end, because the situation and it’s stakes are already so high in real life that they extend into the world of fiction. And if this movie activates public consciousness, that’s amazing. I certainly didn’t know about this issue, and now I do, and that’s fantastic, because if someone like me, who has no context for this issue, has learned about it, I can only imagine that it will deepen the existing understanding so many people here in India have.
That being said, you can also learn a lot of incidental things from this movie too. 15 lessons from one movie? Worth the ticket price!
Note: I don’t own any of these images, I got them from the internet, but if you want to send me more, specifically sweater-vest related, please do so in the comments!