Drugs, Censor and Intense Characters: Shahid and Alia on Udta Punjab
Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab has been the talk of the town for the past week. From facing a number of issues with the Censor Board demanding as many as 89 cuts to the matter reaching the High Court, the film has seen several ups and downs. Dealing with the issue of substance abuse in Punjab, the story of the film is woven around four different characters (Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Diljit Dosanjh and Kareena Kapoor) connected through drugs.
We caught up with Shahid Kapoor and Alia Bhatt where they open up about the toll that the intense characters took on them, what the movie means to them, their views on the Censor Board issue and more.
What was it about Tommy Singh’s character that instantly clicked with you?
He is bizarrely original! I found him very entertaining, but very deep at the same time. He is a very complex character that has various levels and a very complicated mind, but at the same time he is funny and entertaining, which is a very rare combination. Usually entertaining characters are a little shallow and the characters that are very complex are usually serious. But this guy has both, which was very unique for me as an actor.
How did you prepare yourself to transform into Tommy?
It took me three months to achieve the physicality of the character. I ate no food and trained for three hours every day because it is a very odd combination – he is a star, so he needs to look good, but he is an addict so he needs to look destroyed.
Then there was the look of the character – the long hair with streaks and the tattoos are there because when Tommy Singh was being narrated to me by Abhishek (Chaubey), the character was almost jumping out and hitting me in the face. I felt that he was crazy and I wanted the audience to feel that. They should feel a little shocked, a little surprised about what this guy is all about. For this he needs to have a personality which is extremely different.
There was also the very difficult journey of understanding the state of mind of an addict. He is a cocaine addict and is somebody who needs to be on a high all the time because that gives him confidence. People in that space are either over confident and if they are not under the influence of the drug, they are extremely under-confident. Understanding that was difficult.
I want the audience to feel a little shocked, a little surprised about what Tommy Singh is all about
What would you say was the most challenging part about playing this character? Also, were there any apprehensions about the character?
The most difficult thing was to play a substance addict because I have never even had alcohol or ever tried any kind of drugs. So it was very scary to attempt a role that I have no way of understanding. I had no idea what’s it like to be in that state of mind, to be high, because I have never felt it. The only apprehensive part was whether I’ll make a fool of myself or I’ll be able to push my boundaries to try and achieve something that I actually have no exposure to.
Overall, how would you describe Udta Punjab as a movie?
This is a fictional film with fictional characters, and is not based on real life. The issue is real, but the characters are completely fictional and Punjab is just the backdrop of the story. If you see Tommy Singh, he is this huge star who is an addict now. We have seen many real people like this. There have been many pop stars that are famous for overdosing on stuff but people love them for their songs and shows. But the journey of Tommy Singh is the fall of a star because the musician in him falls prey to the addict in him and he becomes nothing. It is a journey of a guy who thinks that he is the best in the world, then recognizes that he is not and fights that reality.
I feel that Udta Punjab should be an adult film and if you are an adult you should have the right to decide
The demands of the Censor Board have created quite a stir. Your views on it?
I am the same guy who did Haider, which was released and I was very proud that it did. I thought that it was an evolved decision. I think it is very clear that the audience is ready to see mature content and I think that we should treat the audience like adults and know what they want to watch and beyond a point, we shouldn’t decide for them. Moreover, for me the message of Udta Punjab is a message that is so relevant. It is not about Punjab, Punjab is only the backdrop and this problem is relevant not just to India, but to the entire generation. Today you just have to Google and you’ll know all about any substance. It is that easy for a 10 or 13 – year – old to learn about it. And it is considered cool to try.
This is the reality we are living in and we have to address the issue. You cannot address the issue by bringing youngsters into a room and giving them a lecture. The only way you can tell a larger section of people is by entertaining them and while you are entertaining, you can give them the message and they could have the head space to absorb it. I think it is an opportunity to reach out to more people, to make them aware and that is the larger focus of the film. I feel that Udta Punjab should be an adult film and if you are an adult you should have the right to decide.
You play a Bihari immigrant in the film. What did your research for the character entail?
I did watch a lot of documentaries, which were very disturbing to see. I play a heroin addict in the film so I had to see what a person goes through, what happens to them physically, the body language, the eyes and so on. Also what happens when you are undergoing withdrawal symptoms. Since I have no idea what that feels like, it was important to see and observe. It was not pleasant but I had to see it.
Which were the difficult aspects that you had to explore in the character?
I found it difficult to relate to the character as we come from different worlds. I am very urban in the way I speak or in the way I sit. I have a certain correctness about my body language because I am a city girl. With my character is a Bihari immigrant who works in the fields. She has no idea of what being proper or correct is. Plus, she is a heroin addict, so I had to lose weight and create a different appearance. I also had to find a way to bring about a little vulnerability that is required in the character.
I found it difficult to relate to the character as we come from different worlds
You are breaking away from your glamorized look for this film. Did the change in image bother you?
For me the only apprehension was whether people would be able to separate Alia and this character and relate to it. Because you have seen me in a certain way, where I am supposed to be bubbly and cute all the time, but in this case I was not.
Did playing this character leave an impression on you?
It definitely did, I have this great respect and value for the life that I am leading right now. We sit and cry about small things. But playing such a character puts things in perspective. There are real problems and issues in life that are much bigger.