Udta Punjab writer Sudip Sharma in an exclusive interview to IndiaToday.in describes the process of writing the controversial drug-themed film.
Sudip Sharma, writer of Udta Punjab, cut his teeth in screenwriting in 2007, when he quit his plush corporate job and decided to delve into the world of films out of his love for cinema.
With back-to-back successes, 2015’s NH10 and now, Udta Punjab, Sharma is quite the talk of the town.
Both films were deeply rooted in the local culture and flavour of North India and explored intense themes like patriarchy and power relations in the badlands of Haryana (Anushka Sharma-starrer NH10) and the menace of drug abuse in Punjab (Shahid Kapoor’s Udta Punjab).
Sharma revealed his process of researching for Udta Punjab and writing the film to IndiaToday.in.
What was the genesis of Udta Punjab?
Abhishek (Chaubey) approached me to write a movie on drugs. I had already done some research on Punjab so I suggested to him to base the story in Punjab. That’s where the problem is quite rampant and real. So, I travelled to Punjab and saw things first-hand.
How long did the research take and when did you begin writing the movie?
Three years ago. Research was done in few rounds. In the first round, I went to Punjab and met journalists, doctors, rehab centre officials, drug addicts, drug peddlers, policemen. I got an idea of the supply side, the law enforcement side, the addicts’ point of view and so on. I wanted to get an idea of why it is happening in Punjab, how it is spreading, how it’s being controlled and is there a way out?
A few months later, after we had written the first draft, Abhishek and I went there again to feel the story a little more in detail, see some of the places where we were setting it.
Once the script was done, we showed it to Vikram (Vikramaditya Motwane) who was a common friend. He loved it and agreed to come on board as producer.
In the course of the research, you have engaged with and run into many unsavoury characters. Did they realise you were writing a movie on them or that you could have exposed them?
The idea never was to expose anybody. We did not go there as sting journalists. Our objective was to get a grasp of the situation to help make our story better. While making a movie, you need to know your goal, and that is to make a movie.
People were forthcoming while speaking. We acted like city idiots who have no clue of the ways of the world (laughs). The standard modus operandi of research is that you frame your questions and behave in such a way that makes the subject comfortable; so the way we were with a peddler, we were not with an addict. Also, people love to boast, talk big. That helped.
We didn’t face any life-threatening situation, at least not as dramatic as anything in the movie. At the most, you would go to a village and they would ask you to leave. So, we would pack our camera and notebook and head to another village.
Did you anticipate the restriciton from various quarters while writing Udta Punjab?
I wrote the film with a very free mind, in what I would call my ‘age of innocence’. Both NH10 and Udta Punjab were written in a period of eight to 10 months with a certain degree of fearlessness. We encountered the censorship issue during NH10’s release. We negotiated over cuts and finally released it. But what happened this time; call them restrictions or shackles, was plain shocking.
How were you feeling throughout the controversy when there was a possibility that the film might not release?
The idea that Udta Punjab wouldn’t release was too depressing a thought to even entertain, so we tried blocking it. But, at one point, it was a reality that it might not release.
My biggest emotion was that of shock. I was not able to make peace with the fact that here we have made an honest, responsible film, one that is pro-Punjab, made with love for Punjab, an anti-drugs film, so we were asking ourselves where did we go wrong? When the CBFC objected, we wondered whether our instinct was right in the first place, whether I really have it all sorted as a writer because I don’t know the difference between good and bad. When you start questioning your career, the very basics that make you a writer, that self-doubt gets difficult to handle.
What were your references for Tommy Singh and Alia’s characters?
In isolation, the rockstar-with-drug-issues is a tropey-character. But, when you put that into the thriving, indigenous Punjabi pop music scene, which is cinematically a new and fresh world, it comes alive.
Alia’s character came out of research. There are numerous migrant labourers from Bihar, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, toiling day in and day out in the fields of Punjab. I wanted to tell the story of one such nameless, faceless, marginalised subaltern character that mainstream cinema usually doesn’t deal with.
One of the most haunting scenes in the movie is where Tommy is in jail. Was it based on something you saw or heard?
I heard the story from an addict about this boy who killed his mother, went to prison, came out, got into severe depression and then committed suicide. It is not something you hear every day and it is hard to forget. While writing, we needed this moment from where Tommy starts questioning his entire life and purpose. This story made it more tragic and memorable.
Was the toilet scene a nod to Trainspotting and was the hyperlink nature of the script trying to ape Stephen Gaghan’s Traffic screenplay?
I had seen Trainspotting a long time back and had forgotten about the toilet scene while writing; so, no. But maybe it was a subconscious thing.
The hyperlink argument is right. We wanted the stories to connect at some point and we were teasing the audience towards it in various ways such as the surreal cut from underwater where Alia swims towards the light and it cuts to Shahid’s face.
There have been complaints that the romantic angle between Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh) and Preet (Kareena Kapoor Khan) was jarring.
We wanted the script to have some ray of hope, some amount of lightness because the story was so dark and heavy. It did not, however, take you away from the plot. Not like we cut away to a song suddenly. The Sartaj-Preet story was embedded into the plot.
The audience I watched the film with laughed at inopportune moments, for example, when Alia’s character recounts her experiences of rape. After the screening of a film which dealt with so many things, all that the men walking out of the theatre were going gaga over was “Arey yaar kaisa mast beh**c**d bola“. What do you think is wrong with us?
There can be two reasons for this. One is because people tend to laugh out of nervousness, let out a giggle, if there is something uncomfortable around. We saw this during NH10’s screening. Another is that the Indian audience is not used to cuss words in cinema, as opposed to in real life, so we laugh. I remember when I saw Bandit Queen as an 18-year-old, with my school friends, people laughed in the middle of the most darkest, disturbing scenes. But while walking out of the theatre, I could see that they were affected. They were touched somewhere. The laugh is just a show of nothing-affects-me kind of machismo.
Any directorial aspirations?
Not really. Writing is a specialised job, which needs a lot of dedication and I want to stick to it. Thinking of making movies will take me away from that. Also, I don’t want to deal with the nonsense a director has to handle like budget, production, actors, dates, etc.
William Goldman, Aaron Sorkin, Shane Black, Coen Brothers, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Navdeep Singh and Abhishek Chaubey.
Any advice to budding screenwriters in Mumbai and all over India?
Find stories that really interest you, that would leave you with a vacuum inside if you couldn’t tell them. In this town, we write scripts really fast, without spending time on them. Spend time on stories and find the right collaborator.