After versions of his film surfaced online, director and producer Anurag Kashyap put out an impassioned plea on Facebook. Acknowledging that in a world connected by the internet piracy is impossible to control, Kashyap’s humble request was to resist downloading it just till Udta Punjab released in theaters. He urged, “Wait till Saturday to decide not to pay for the film.”
A couple of weeks ago the more cynical among us might have accused Kashyap of deliberately whipping up a controversy for publicity before a big release. The master of gritty realism, he has a history of run-ins with the Central Board of Film Certification. Paanch was stalled for unexplained violence and in 2014 Kashyap fought hard to avoid displaying the “No Smoking” warning in Ugly.
For a lesser film than Udta Punjab, the leak online would have been a shattering blow. But because of the provocative subject and the buzz the movie has generated, this may just be a film people will want to see on the big screen, not their laptops. However, the real reason it will go down in Indian cinematic history is because too few mainstream Hindi movies tackle issues that are disturbing and unpleasant. Viewers, especially the sober ones, have a natural curiosity for differently lived lives.
Not all Indians enjoy glossy family dramas where everyone is perpetually euphoric. The traditional presumption among filmmakers is that movies on losers with problems don’t translate into box office hits. Besides the unforgettable Zeenat Aman starrer of the 70s Hare Rama Hare Krishna, and maybe Fashion with Kangana Ranaut I can’t think of any Indian films that explore addiction in any memorable way (incidently, both were big hits). The alcoholic is mostly depicted in comedic ridicule or in a syrupy, romantic fantasy like Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas. (Not to forget Kashyap’s Dev D which was so much more watchable.)
Conversely, the druggie film in the West is a mature genre; considered carefully, even philosophically. Whether one agrees or not with the implication that there can be thoughtful purpose to doping, movies like Trainspotting (1996) lay emphasis on characters and their motivations, not just sensations. It’s a relentlessly bleak topic which usually ends in tragedy; except at the box office and cable television where it inevitably finds its own, if smaller audience. Narcos, based on Mexican drug lord Pablo Escobar is the highest rated show on Netflix right now.
My life is far removed from Punjab’s drug problem. Yet, just last week I was advised against taking a cab from Chandigarh to Manali because I might be risking a doped driver on Himachal’s treacherous roads. There are plenty of stories here and it requires a special skill to portray the nuances between pleasure and self destruction without glamorising getting high. Or much worse, turning it into a tedious morality tale. The audiences are ready and waiting.