An entertainment journalist can tell you what a busy few days it was in a newsroom, around the time Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab released.
For one, the film was embroiled in a massive censorship controversy, and even took the Central Board of Film Certification to court, asking them to not delete scenes from the film, but only certify it. This is a film that they had worked very hard on, and by censoring it, the CBFC was curtailing artistic freedom.
It was around this time that we got to hear the Bombay High Court speak in favour of filmmaking and the film industry, with gems like, "Blanket ban on Udta Punjab interferes with creative freedom" and "make cuts don't censor" and (my personal favourite) "If you don't like a film, don't watch it".
Remember when the censor board recommended 89 cuts in the film?
After an exhausting battle with not only the film's producers, but several filmmakers from the film fraternity (including Imtiaz Ali, Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Satisk Kaushik and producers like Mahesh and Mukesh Bhatt), Udta Punjab finally released with an 'A' certificate and one cut. Merely one cut.
Sorry for the trip down memory lane, but I belong to a generation where Anurag Kashyap's Paanch (a film about rock 'n' roll) has still not been released for being too vulgar; where filmmakers are held at ransom for calling a city Bombay instead of Mumbai; when we still haven't resolved the situation between FTII students and Gajendra Chauhan; where Pakistani actors are being threatened by political parties to go back to their home country because of a 67 plus years long conflict that artists have no stake in.
So I feel no shame in admitting that as an entertainment journalist (and a film enthusiast), the release and acceptance of a film like Udta Punjab felt like a personal victory.
However, when claims of the film being plagiarised from British novel High Society, written by Ben Elton, surfaced online recently, social media pounced on it like it was the apocalypse, with the use of words and phrases like "thieves" and "what is original anymore".
Happy to learn that there are people in major newspapers in India reading Ben Elton. Unhappy Udta Punjab, which I enjoyed, may be stolen.
— samit basu (@samitbasu) September 27, 2016
Surprised that Udta Punjab & High society in the age of Twitter took this long to be discovered. We are not well read at all after all
— Naomi Datta (@nowme_datta) September 27, 2016
— Biswatosh Sinha (@biswatosh) September 23, 2016
Even though a Times of India piece had earlier pointed to the fact that there were many similarities between Elton's book and Udta Punjab, this piece published in Scroll.in detailed all the similarities between the two.
Right from the title — "Udta" "Punjab" and "High" "Society" — to crucial scenes such as Shahid's character getting 'Fuddu' inked on his head, and in High Society, Tommy Hanson getting the word 'twat' shaved on his bald head, you can't un-see the similarities once you break them down.
Even character sketches seem familiar —Alia Bhatt and Jessie are both escaped "sex slaves" who are drugged into addiction, and both Tommys (Hanson and Shahid Kapoor) feel a connection with them, claiming that they felt saved after having met the women.
One can completely imagine why cinema goers would feel cheated.
It's safe to say that Udta Punjab broke a lot of norms. This is a film that cemented Shahid Kapoor's mettle as an actor (there was Kaminey and Haider, but with Udta Punjab he really took that extra step in transforming himself into a character, instead of being a superstar in a film).
Udta Punjab also makes a strong case for Alia Bhatt, the actor. We've seen bits and pieces of her merit in films like Highway and 2 States, but in 2016, with films like Kapoor & Sons and Udta Punjab, Alia broke away from the stereotype that actress should only do certain kind of roles.
The same can be said about Kareena Kapoor Khan, for whom Udta Punjab becomes another name to add to a list of stellar film choices (Ki and Ka is also one) even though her role wasn't as meaty.
The writer of the film, Sudip Sharma has admitted to having read High Society long ago, but it was not his main inspiration behind the film. He tells Scroll, " The one big inspiration for me was Traffic (a crime drama, directed by Steven Soderbergh). I had read the book [High Society] a long time back. I don’t remember most of it."
This may seem like something most filmmakers/writers say. Anurag Basu said this when he was asked about Barfi! being copied from various films, "I paid homage to the films and filmmakers that I grew up watching. Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino have done the same. Does that make them thieves? Great moments of cinema that you’ve watched through the years, stay with you and come out in your work. It doesn’t mean you’re copying anyone. Thank god The Artist was not made by an Indian. If it had been, it would have never been nominated for the Oscar, let alone winning the award."
Like everything about life (yes I went there), plagiarism is also grey.
One cannot take the script of Udta Punjab, and High Society and put it into a plagiarism software to determine the extent of how much was copied, merely because the context and setting of both are vastly different. High Society is a book that makes a case for legalisation of drugs, while Udta Punjab is a fictionalised take on the current drug situation, and rehabilitation efforts, in Punjab.
Which brings us to the most important victory of Udta Punjab. It is arguably the first film to ever capture the essence of the Punjab drug problem (it was followed by months of mud slinging between politicians in Punjab) and put it in a consumable, entertaining form, with intense music by Amit Trivedi.
We can mask the word copying by with more colourful words like "homage" and "inspiration" but a quick glance through the similarities between the two will give you a sense how much in Udta Punjab was borrowed from High Society.
But does that take away from the film? Does Abhishek Chaubey get no credit for how Udta Punjab turned out? For the conversations it opened about drugs, heroin, border control, politics in Punjab and even film censorship? Does Udta Punjab get no credit for changing the way we consume so-called "serious" films?
If we can lap up films like Maqbool, Haider and Omkara as local interpretations of Shakespearan legends, then why is it that we choose to take a moral high ground when it comes to Udta Punjab? Is it just because Vishal Bhardwaj announced his inspirations and Sudip Sharma didn't?
If Sharma has consciously plagiarised High Society for the script of Udta Punjab, then he should apologise to the writer of the book. But nothing else can and should take away from what Udta Punjab brought to average Indian movie-watcher.
First Published On : Sep 28, 2016 12:31 IST