Having won his war with the Censor Board and getting the added satisfaction that his film Udta Punjab is on its way to commercial success, director Abhishek Choubey discusses the film’s journey with Subhash K. Jha. Excerpts from the interview…
Now that Udta Punjab has finally released, how do you feel?
Relief, joy, calmness and a sense of achievement.
Do you feel triumphant over the Censor Board?
Triumph is too big a word. I wanted to focus on the film somehow being released on June 17. If we had not met our release date I’d have felt defeated.
The Censor Board has a terrible responsibility, and a completely thankless job. I agree, when a film like Udta Punjab is given the freedom to have its say, other filmmakers may demand the same.
The profanities in your film do not offend...
That’s because those lines were not put in there to titillate, that’s how the characters speak.
Your last film was Dedh Ishqiya. How did you suddenly jump to a film about the drug menace in Punjab?
I started writing Udta Punjab in 2013, a few months before Dedh Ishqiya released. I was really keen to make a film on drug abuse. But initially I didn’t know how to go about doing it.
How did Punjab come into the picture?
Initially there was no Punjab in my film. I just wanted to do a film on drug abuse because it was a problem that bothered me. I had seen from very close quarters what drugs could do.
Have you ever tried drugs?
No, nothing major. Maybe marijuana. But I’ve seen friends in college fall victim. The drug menace is all around us. But no one was talking about it in our films. Apart from whispers at high-society parties, no one really cared. That bothered me. I read up on the subject. The information I gathered was very incipient. It was after this that we moved our plot idea to Punjab. Because the problem of drug abuse is acute in Punjab.
How much time did you spend in Punjab researching on drug abuse?
I was there for a few months. My co-writer Sudip Sharma went much earlier. Later, I joined him and we met many health experts, drug victims and others related to the issue.
The claim in your film that 70 per cent of the youth in Punjab are drug addicts has become contentious…
All the data is easily available, for anyone who wants to check, on the Internet. We also depended on various other sources for our data. There is a problem in Punjab. We said, “Let’s make a film on it with stars so that people will listen to us.” This is the reality. This is what is happening in Punjab.
How traumatised was Alia Bhatt playing her character of a Bihar migrant in Punjab who is captured and enslaved?
Extremely traumatised. So much so that on the day she finished shooting, she ran into her van and let out a whoop of joy and relief (laughs). She became herself again. Alia had to go through a lot while playing the character. We had to be careful about how far we could go in showing her trauma.
You might have been careful. But what we see still comes across as an extremely brutal depiction of a society that has lost its compassion…
Our first draft of the script was much more brutal. In the subsequent drafts we toned down the brutality to make it more palatable, though with Alia’s character we couldn’t water down the brutality without lessening the impact. But yes, we were aware that we wanted to make a mainstream film, hence the love story between Shahid and Alia, though even that love story is not without a sub-text. You see, drug addicts feel unloved and isolated. They tend to drift towards one another.
Apparently all the principal actors took a pay cut?
Yes. We knew this was not a big-budget blockbuster movie. Yet we wanted stars. We needed to spend as little as possible. We had to shoot within a stipulated number of days. All of the actors were willing and they surrendered without any hesitation. They were the ones who really made the film