I grew up with the stereotype that Punjab is a land of riches. Everyone in Punjab eats drinks and makes merry. And they are all a tad bit aggressive (which us Bengalis are not!). I was vaguely reminded of Mani Kaul’s film Uski Roti while watching Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab. The quiet violence of a Punjabi truck- driver in Mani Kaul was not the bhangra-prancing Punjabi man we see in national integration promos. Neither is he the Raj or Karan who swoons in Switzerland and retains his ties to his mother’s gajar halwa. This is a different Punjab. Where young and old are in a drugged stupor. Presumably there is rampant unemployment. And attendant dystopia. These are not aggressive warriors, but frail boys and men trying to get by and forget their sorrows.
A desperate search for mood-upliftment is shown through the excellently sketched character of Tommy Singh, the Gabru, a Punjabi rapper, who can’t perform unless he is drugged. The drug trade gets more and more murky as it is unraveled by a mid-level police officer and a woman doctor – predictably involving high-level politicians. But the film is not about drugs and murky politics and cutbacks and illegality. The film is the most lyrical tribute I have read/seen on human endurance and pain. A Bihari migrant, farm-labor-girl gets entangled in the business of the drug mafia. She endures rape, forced addiction and torture at their behest. Particularly interesting is the character of the boy who seems to be falling in love with her and yet participates in the violence. She endures pain in a most remarkable performance of disgust, suffering and ambivalence. The violence with which she kills the loverboy at the end, is speech, to my mind. Words that have built inside her for years now pour out as a violent act. This is not Katherine Boo’s entrepreneurial poor, this is not the lazy masculine desire of Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis. A bit of this film is perhaps found in the book Righteous Dopefiend by Philippe Bourgois.
In theory, we debate whether pain exceeds language. Chaubey shows that film can tell pain, perhaps better than prose or poetry. This is a story of human capacity for cruelty and endurance. I call it an ethnographic film in that defies the genre-divide of documentary and fiction. Kareena, Shahid, Diljit Dosanjh have all delivered stellar performances, but they pale against the fragile determination of Mary Jane. Alia Bhatt take a bow.