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$%&@ Off!

Back from a long vacation last week, I naturally had a lot of official work to attend, and the most urgent one turned out to be watching Udta Punjab, the controversial movie that has bravely thrown light on the stuff that a major cross section of Punjabi populace seems to be tragically addicted to: Swear words.

Almost every third sentence that was spoken on the screen came liberally specked with coarse abuses in chaste Punjabi, which the filmmakers have thoughtfully made available through subtitles in computer code. Okay, the subtitles were in English only, but whenever a character let out an expletive, which in this film was often, the subtitles below went something like “@&*($^# Gabru“, as if the character had suddenly chosen to speak — possibly because he had mainlined heroin — in ‘php’ script.

This use of random symbols to convey the idea of expletives, though a standard practice in written form, is strange for this film. I mean this is a film that courageously went to the courts against the obscurantist Censor Board and won for itself the moral right to be explicit. The filmmakers wanted these very same obscenities to be ‘heard’ on screen, but when it came to putting them out in the subtitles they seem to have played a Pahlaj Nihalani on themselves.

In general, I don’t get this tendency to sanitise swear words in printed material through symbols. If anything, it only draws further attention to them, with the following message: ‘HEY! DON’T MISS ME, I AM THE PROFANITY IN THIS SENTENCE’. The result is even innocent use of symbols, like in the headline of this piece, can be unfortunately construed to mean a four-letter obscenity. For the record, ‘$%&@ Off!‘ should be read as ‘Hats off’ (to the makers of Udta Punjab).

Coming back to the film, it redounds to the sincerity of the filmmakers, who having got the ‘call-sheets’ of stars like Shahid Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor could have made a movie like Jab We Met in which Kareena was completely zany and Shahid relatively sane. Here what we have is entirely different, in the sense, here Shahid is totally kooky and Kareena the opposite.

OK, that was for fun only. Udta Punjab is actually a pretty serious effort on a calamitous problem afflicting Punjab: an active gun culture that seems far worse than US’. You can understand cops and baddies brandishing loaded weapons. It happens in all movies. But here in this film’s climax, we have an old woman, who was all along shown to be immobile, holding a pistol to the head of a young man. Even in the US, I guess, it will be near impossible for a 70-plus grandma, one who is basically confined to a chair, to get hold of a gun, unless, of course, the doctor prescribes  it along with the medicines for incontinence. But you can’t rule out such things with the medical community, here or anywhere else.

Ha. Ha. Ha. That again is only a joke. Udta Punjab, in a matter of fact tone, brings to us the enormity of the drug menace in Punjab, through strikingly three different stories involving Shahid Kapoor as the singer named Tommy Singh, a young student named ‘Balli’, and Alia Bhatt as an indigent and hapless farm worker who is kept nameless for reasons that remain a beautiful suspense even long after you have left the cinema hall. I think it will join the Punjabi folklore as the third unresolved mystery after Navjot Singh Sidhu’s unexplained return halfway from a tour of England in the 90s. The first, of course, will forever be the brain wave behind the idea to cast Rani Mukherjee as a cricket-playing brawny Sardar in Dil Bole Hadippa.

In summation, I would say Udta Punjab is certainly worth a watch for many reasons, not the least for the high-octane performance from Shahid Kapoor as the drug-crazed pop singer. He manages to shrug off the serious and long addiction thanks to a life-revealing encounter inside a prison cell and, more importantly, thanks to the fact that he is the nominal hero of the film. Whereas the non-hero, the young ‘Balli’, who despite being into drugs for what appears to be only a short time, finds it impossible to come out of the habit and goes to the extent of even…okay we will not give out any spoilers, lest you go, ‘hey man, you %^&*$#%!’

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