Udta Punjab wasn’t an easy film to make – Abhishek Chaubey
They say ‘cinema is reflection of society’. But it needs a lot of courage to showcase important issues that have to be addressed. If we look at the journey of Udta Punjab, which will finally release today, after much controversy, we cannot even imagine the amount of hard work, patience and discipline the film has demanded from its director Abhishek Chaubey. Just a day prior to the film’s release, when we spoke to Chaubey, we saw a very positive person, a man who doesn’t have time for self pity. He believes that this entire experience will help him evolve in his approach but it wouldn’t change him as a person or filmmaker. Here are excerpts from our exclusive chat with the filmmaker.
What lead to the idea of writing a script on such a critical issue like drugs?
In September 2013, I met Sudip (Sharma, Writer) to discuss an idea for a film. It was a pan India story about drugs – part of it was set in North East, some parts in Punjab and so on. We had a very sketchy idea about the film – the story and the characters. Sudip then went back and read about it. He is the one who told me that it would be good if we set the film in Punjab. And that kind of rang a bell in my head as I had heard about the problem of drug abuse in Punjab through some articles in various publications and as well as seen a documentary on it. Therefore I had some idea about it and so did Sudip, which made us start.
I have been reading about the issue of drugs in general. I have also had a few friends who have encountered drug issues. Also what interested me the most was that it is not just Punjab that is facing this problem, you see it even in Mumbai, UP, North East or Jammu and Kashmir. It goes down very deep into our society but we don’t really make a movie on it. And space was available for me to dig in. We have had films that deal with the criminal aspect of drugs, like drug smuggling but I don’t think that any film has been based on drug abuse.
How much did you know about the problem before you decided to write the script?
After Sudip and I discussed the subject, I did a lot of reading about it. The reading was mainly articles or statistical data or things that academic papers have written about. And as I said, I watched some documentaries too. That was a bit shocking for me as I did not know the extent of the problem. We had a very vague idea about it. But nothing could prepare me for what I saw when I went there.
The numbers and the extent of the problem can be debated. The government data says one thing whereas journalistic data says something else. And I don’t know which data was correct. But when I met addicts out there, what really bothered me was that there were a lot of youngsters, in their teens.
It is not just Punjab that is facing a drug problem, you see it even in Mumbai, UP, North East or Jammu and Kashmir
In addition to the articles and data, what all did your research entail?
We spent a few months in Punjab and went to many towns, cities and villages. We also met a lot of people, the law enforcement department to understand the issues that they dealt with, people from de-addiction centres, activists who are fighting for the issue, some who are working with drug unions and some who are fighting at the level of policy or corruption in the system, drug addicts and so on. Then we went to areas that have been really affected. It wasn’t that the problem was uniform in Punjab. There were certain areas where it was much more. We also went to areas where the problem was quite serious and even met regular people to know more about it. While interacting with them, not only did they tell us about the whole issue but also gave us an idea about what Punjab is actually like.
To a non-Punjabi person like me, our idea of Punjab is so Bollywoodised, that we don’t really see it for what it really is. I learnt to read Gurmukhi so that I don’t appear like a foreigner in Punjab. A lot of Hindi films have already shown Punjab, but their focus was only on a certain aspect of it. From the beautiful mustard fields to Punjabis having a huge spirit and being robust people, things which are shown in Hindi cinema are actually true. We have seen a very colorful version of Punjab – wonderful bright havelis, gabru jawans etc. But there is also a very regular side of Punjab – the rural countryside, the towns and small places like Goindwal sahab where some portions of the film are shot. That regular Punjab, which we don’t really see, is also very beautiful. Apart from Punjabis being spirited people, I also found them to be really polite.
Were there any inhibitions when you decided to make the film? Was it initially difficult tofsu find producers to back you?
I spoke to a couple of production houses. And Phantom (Films) came on board very early. I spoke to Vikramaditya Motawane and he said that he would like to produce the film. Phantom was trying to raise the finance, which took a long while. So there was lot of struggle in that. It is not an easy subject and I think people who have done the film have done it because the script moved them. This kind of a terrific star cast supporting this kind of a film, helps you to raise the money and keep the audience interested. In order to make the film in a limited budget, we did everything from keeping the budget tight to not going overboard and shooting it quickly in limited number of days. We did all of that. The most important thing that was there in our mind was that the producers shouldn’t lose money. We made the film very innocently and I believe that we were doing a very noble thing.
It is not an easy subject and people who have done the film have done it because they were moved by the script
What kind of hindrances or hurdles did you face from the planning stage through the process of making Udta Punjab?
It wasn’t an easy film to make, as I just mentioned that we had very limited time to shoot. And it is a multi-track narrative. Usually for such a film, you are stationed at one place station for some days and shooting in one particular location. In this film we were shooting at multiple locations. We were based in Amritsar but there were only few scenes that were shot there. We were shooting in a 50 km radius around Amritsar, in every direction. And there was a lot of traveling and continuous change of location.
When you are shooting in the same location for many days, you get used to it and start understanding the property, lighting etc. But when you are shooting in a real location practically everyday, you have to quickly adapt to it. And it is a high energy film so the level of energy in the performance had to be up at all times. Shooting in Punjab in a very limited time with budget constraints made it difficult for the production crew to pull everything off. However we got a lot of help and support from the local people of Punjab. We never faced any problem as such. But of course when you are shooting with someone like Diljit Dosanjh, who is a huge star in Punjab, in real locations, what exactly do you expect? It was most difficult to shoot with him in real locations. And people loved Kareena (Kapoor Khan). We also shot with Shahid (Kapoor) in real locations. With Alia (Bhatt), nobody actually recognized that it was her.
As a filmmaker and as a person, during this whole battle with the Censor and now even with the film getting leaked, what has been going on in your mind?
Frankly I did not have time to think about what was going on or have self pity or feel bad for myself. But there were few moments when I really thought, “What is really happening?” Too many things were happening and we were just going from moment to moment, day by day, thinking about what should we do about the whole thing. There was no other way. We would have lost control of what was happening if we didn’t go like that. There were surprises all the time. We had a Whatsapp group where we were sharing data and other details, were meeting, talking and trying to be on our toes to solve the problems that came our way. So there was very little time to feel bad. I think it will take me a while to make sense of what has happened in the past few weeks.
In such a scenario, it takes a lot of courage to keep moving and fight the battle. What is your learning from the whole situation?
There is nothing to learn except to be able to handle such a situation in a more mature manner, if it ever arrives in the future. To be a little smarter about it. If this was to happen again, my reaction will not be the same because I have already experienced it. At the same time, it is all about sticking to the original purpose and being the filmmaker that you are and not ever changing the kind of person you are. And yes I’ll be a little more evolved in my approach.
The film is said to have broken records of the most expensive music deal. How did you choose the songs and music since Punjabi music is already quite famous?
Shahid happens to be a non-Bhangra star in the film. So we had the opportunity to create some really funky music. And Amit (Trivedi) really worked hard to produce this kind of music. We were exploring a different space as we thought that there is Bhangra music that we know and then there is Asian music, which comes from UK or Canada. But we wanted to do something that most people haven’t done. It took him about a year to complete the album, which is good, because there are different layers that then go into it. The music is quite unusual.
One of the songs, ‘Ik kudi’ is taken from a poem by Shiv Kumar Batalvi. The title song ‘Ud da Punjab’ is written by Varun Grover. And the other songs are written by Shellee who had to travel a long way, it was quite a ride for him. He used to write a lot and then we would pick and choose from it. It was a good experience working with these guys.
When the story is already dramatic, then I don’t have to do extra things to pitch it even higher
Your films always have a deep connection to realism. Where do you draw inspiration for such stories? And how do you treat them?
I don’t know where it comes from. A lot of realism comes from not doing too much. I like to shoot in real locations. I like to use minimal amount of VFX. And if you look at Ishqiya or Udta Punjab, the stories are very dramatic. When the story is already dramatic, then I don’t have to do extra things to pitch it even higher. I’m sure it is got to do with my initial working with Vishal (Bhardwaj). While working with him, there was a kind of cinema that we made, which really got into my skin.