Udta Punjab is an engaging story rooted in reality – Sudip Sharma
When the gritty and horrifying NH10 released last year, in addition to Anushka Sharma’s performance, it also highlighted the film’s script as the hero. Following the same path of showcasing dark realities on celluloid; screenplay, story and dialogue writer Sudip Sharma is all set to highlight an important issue through his upcoming film Udta Punjab. In an exclusive chat with Pandolin, this IIM-A grad unveils different layers about his films and life.
Udta Punjab is about the drug menace in Punjab. Could you tell us more about the story line and how have you weaved the issue in the story?
The genesis of Udta Punjab was the issue of drugs. From the moment Abhishek (Chaubey, Director) and I started working on it, we knew that we were writing a drug story, something that directly deals with the drug crisis in Punjab. Having said that, neither of us are interested in making films about “issues”. Films have to be about characters and their journeys. We have done exactly that in Udta Punjab as well, just that drugs form an integral part of the story of each of the characters.
Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) is a Punjabi rock star, but he has got addicted to drugs and needs to find his mojo back.
Alia Bhatt plays a Bihari migrant worker who by a twisted stroke of bad luck, gets sucked into the world of drug smuggling.
Diljit Dosanjh plays Sartaj Singh, a narcotics department cop, who is almost a part of the corrupt system. But all of it changes when drugs hit a note close to home.
And Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor) runs a rehab center for drug addicts.
Have any real life stories influenced the script?
There are lots of little incidents and characters that we came across as part of our research and they have all made their way into the script. Even if not overtly, they are there in the form of a character nuance here, or a dialogue there. In that sense, the film is quite rooted in reality.
When you’re dealing with serious issues like honor killing or drugs, you’ve to grapple with certain dark realities
I read an article that said that Udta Punjab is backed by four years of research. Tell us more about the research that went into the film?
I don’t know where this figure of four years came from. But yes, we did do extensive research for the film. We traveled to various locations in Punjab, met people who have been affected by drugs in some form or the other. This included cops, drug addicts, rehab workers, doctors, journalists and even drug smugglers.
Your last film NH10 realistically explored many dark realities, like the Manoj – Babli honor killing case on which it was loosely based. Will Udta Punjab do the same?
When you’re dealing with serious issues like honor killing or drugs, you’ve to grapple with certain dark realities. There’s no point pussyfooting around these, or else there’s a danger of the story ringing false or hollow. That’s just the nature of the beast you’ve chosen for yourself and it’s best to tackle it head on. Having said that, that’s not the primary motive of the film. The main objective, as always, was to tell an engaging story, be it with NH10 or with Udta Punjab – an engaging story rooted in reality.
Drugs are a very sensitive issue in Punjab and the involvement of some political leaders has always been questioned. Did that create any inhibitions?
Yes, drugs are a very sensitive issue there. I actually wish they were a little less so. Maybe then it’d get talked about more openly. There’s a need for it to be discussed and acknowledged in drawing rooms, that this is something that’s happening all around in Punjab, and that the kids there are getting addicted. We’ll be happy if the film manages to get a conversation started on the topic, not just in Punjab but all over. That’s really as much change as we can hope to achieve from a film.
From Shahid Kapoor to Kareena Kapoor Khan, Alia Bhatt to Diljit Dosanjh; were the roles written keeping the actors in mind?
The film starts with four unrelated characters and their stories sort of criss-cross during the course of the film and eventually become one story. We had no clue as to who’ll eventually play the part and that I think helped us in writing fresh characters, untainted by actor expectations. And then we were just lucky to have found such a great cast who just sunk their teeth into the roles.
Were you also part of the film’s shoot? How does the involvement of a script writer during the filming help a project?
Yes, I was there for some part of the shoot. But that was really because Abhishek just wanted me around for a second opinion. Besides being co-writers, we are also friends, so I guess it’s always good to have someone around whose opinion you trust when you’re directing. Having said that, he didn’t really need me as he is a very assured director and knew exactly what he was doing.
We had no clue as to who’ll eventually play the part and that I think helped us in writing fresh characters, untainted by actor expectations
As a storyteller, what are the kind of stories that interest you?
That’s a tough one to answer actually. I’m particularly drawn to stories rooted in a rather specific time and place but which still have certain universal values that make them connect. Or stories which are gritty and raw, or where characters fight back from grave adversity, or stories that explore the dark side in us.
Any recent Hindi film script that has really amazed you?
Titli. It was dark, relentless and moody, and crafted with a lot of passion. If you go beyond Hindi films, Court and Fandry have been my other two favorite scripts (or films) from the last couple of years.
It is said that this is the best phase for Hindi cinema as all kinds of scripts are being accepted. However as a writer, do you get complete freedom?
The times are both good and bad. Audiences have opened up to newer stories today and that has forced the gatekeepers to consider these seriously. But at the same time, marketing has become a big part of filmmaking and the kind of financial strain it puts on the budget of a film means that stories which are essentially “small” are finding it increasingly tough to get made. Regional cinema is doing a far better job of telling these stories, be it Marathi or Tamil or Malayalam.
When we talk about freedom for writers or directors, it cannot exist in vacuum and is a function of the larger eco-system. There’s more freedom for writers in telling smaller stories, but if these stories themselves are difficult to make, it’s a bit of a bummer. And that’s what has been happening off late. The best films of the last ten years, say Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Dev D, Manorama Six Feet Under etc. will today find it extremely difficult to get green lit. So in that sense, the market has become tougher as well.
Has any script of yours not managed to find producers so far?
Oh, a hell lot of them. Most of them I am glad about, since they were written at the beginning of my journey and are awful, but there are a few decent ones in there as well. But that’s just the nature of the business. Javed (Akhtar) saab once said somewhere that you have to write ten scripts to get one made. The ratio might vary individually, but it’s rarely one is to one.
There’s more freedom for writers in telling smaller stories, but if these stories themselves are difficult to make, it’s a bit of a bummer
How detailed are the scripts that you write – from background of the character to the mood, tone or milieu etc? Tell us about your writing process.
I work extensively with the director and the scripts come out of that collaboration. The job of a script, apart from telling you what’s happening in the scene and who’s saying what, is also to evoke a certain mood and response from the reader, which is eventually the response you’re hoping from the viewer of the film. It’s a blueprint for the director to execute with the help of the actors and other heads of departments and has to have the necessary details. But you’ve to be careful with the detailing at the same time – it’s not a bible. It’s not the word of God. Ultimately, it’ll be re-interpreted while shooting and then again while editing and that’s the whole point.
Going back to your initial days, how did your tryst with Hindi cinema happen?
Growing up in small town India of the 90s, there was hardly anything else to do apart from watching the weekly Hindi film release. And then when I went for my MBA and was having a terrible time there because of my disinterest with my career option, I got hooked on to Hollywood and world cinema. And that’s where it got serious, this love for cinema, and the idea came to pursue it seriously as a career.
Your films like Players and Rock the Shaadi that came before NH10 weren’t commercial successes. In cases like those, how does one keep himself/herself motivated?
When you start off, you don’t have options. You work on whatever comes your way so that you can live to fight another day. It took me a while to figure out my space and find the people I wanted to work with. And then I met Navdeep Singh, with whom I first collaborated on Rock the Shaadi. The film got shut mid-way through production and it was a rather low phase of life, but we kept working on one script after another. There was no other way really, but just to show up at the writing table every day and attempt to write. Eventually, NH10 got made and Udta Punjab went into production.
It took me a while to figure out my space and find the people I wanted to work with
What is currently happening with Navdeep Singh’s next Kaneda that you have written?
It’s inspired from a true story based in Vancouver, where a bunch of Punjabi boys rose in the gangland scene there in the 90s. The film is a gangster drama and documents their rise and fall. We’re still trying to get it cast, and hopefully we’ll get to make that film sometime soon.
Tell us more about your other upcoming projects.
Well, apart from Kaneda with Navdeep, Abhishek Chaubey and I have started working on our next film together. It’s a very exciting space and something that we’re both kicked about. But it’s kind of early to give you any details as we’re still grappling with the bull in front of us.