The Sixth River

Udta Punjab does a great job in initiating a national conversation on drugs, but it is no substitute for that conversation.

The Peanut Gallery

Udta Punjab
Director: Abhishek Chaubey
Starring: Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Alia Bhatt, Diljit Dhosanj
Rating: 4/5

Human resources ki baat ki, Europe ka ambassador keh raha hai, ‘Bhaiya, Hindustan mein human resources ki kami nahin hai.’ Aur Punjab mein human resources ka kya ho raha hai? Saat mein se das…das mein se saat yuvaon ko drug ki problem hai.

—Rahul Gandhi
Panjab University, 11 October 2012

We owe Rahul Gandhi an apology. Four years ago, when Prince Smarming made this observation during a speech in Chandigarh, it was dismissed as one more gaffe by Buddhu. “I think it’s a ridiculous statement that seven out of ten youths in Punjab are addicted to drugs,” deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal responded on Times Now. “I think it’s because he is cut off from reality anyway. He doesn’t know what Punjab is, what Punjab is doing, and how Punjab’s youth…what do they do. He just comes once in five years, or once in four years during an election, or maybe pays [a] visit. So it is more of a political statement than a factual statement.”

Harcharan Bains, an advisor to the chief minister, soon followed suit, calling Gandhi a “national joke”. The nation obliged, by making #YoRahulSoDumb trend on Twitter; the fact that he said ten out of seven before correcting himself was only part of the ridicule. As Kruti Anand wrote for NamoLeague, “regarded as one of the eminent portals in the world of politics, created by the admirers and fans of Shree Narendra Modi”,

And here goes the Gandhian again! It’s a sixer this time….Rahul Gandhi is hallucinating. Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi again showed his dumbness by a baseless comment that was Oh-So-Gandhian. On a two-day visit to Punjab, Mr. Gandhi it seemed had desi sharab and was hallucinating when he made a comment saying, “7 out of 10 youth in Punjab are addicted to drugs”.  I think Mr. Rahul was on a high when he raised the issue of drug addiction…he has brought disgrace to the whole community by commenting such a thing that too in front of the youths present in the rally. Such a comment just shows the amount of confidence a Gandhi family member has when he utters such a thing publicly knowing that MOM will handle everything. This comment of his has created a furor in the nation with twitteratis and facebookers commenting on Rahul Gandhi’s comic timing. Well all we can say that Mr. Gandhi should let us know what brand he is having these days, so we mortals also get on a bit of high to digest such comments from son of a ruling party!! Indeed #Yorahulsodumb!

As it turns out, Gandhi’s statement was not the result of some hallucinatory dharra, but a reference to statistics quoted by the Parkash Singh Badal government itself in an affidavit submitted to the High Court in 2009, which also mentioned that two out of every three rural households had at least one drug addict. The government had based its figures on a 2006 study conducted by Dr Ravinder Sandhu of the Guru Nanak Dev University; Dr Sandhu clarified after Gandhi’s comment, however, that his study had been misquoted, as he had only said that 73.5 percent of the 600 addicts in his sample were between the ages of 16 and 35. Sure, Gandhi’s figure was an exaggeration, but it was an exaggeration made by the very state government that was now calling him a national joke, not in a speech to party cadre but in a submission to the highest court in the state.

Sure, Gandhi’s figure was an exaggeration, but it was an exaggeration made by the very state government that was now calling him a national joke, not in a speech to party cadre but in a submission to the highest court in the state.

In any case, to claim that he was hallucinating for pointing out a public health issue that is by no means imaginary is to miss his point, and the kneejerk reactions raise pertinent questions about the nature of public discourse in the country. Although there hasn’t yet been a study that provides a definitive proportion of the state’s youth—or total population—addicted to narcotics, Chander Suta Dogra reported in Outlook in January 2011 that “a couple of surveys conducted by the state health department [have] thrown up the fearsome estimate that between 50 per cent to 60 per cent of young people between the ages of 16 and 35 are addicted to drugs.” As far back as 2002, Amritsar-based psychiatrist Dr PD Garg estimated “that addiction was plaguing around 40–50 percent of the youth.” The state’s Department of Social Security, Development of Women and Children says that the rate of heroin abuse among the youth in the border districts is as high as 75 percent.

Whatever the exact numbers, there is no denying that Punjab has a serious drug problem, has had one for years, and the release of Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab has brought this problem to the centre of the national dialogue, a conversation that has seen hyperbolic claims like the one Rahul Gandhi made become mainstream, so much so that he’s now taking credit for highlighting the situation way back when. It’s an intervention of sorts, almost as if all the other states have decided to gather around Punjab and tell it to get its act together and check into some sort of 12-step programme. (The Badals’ years of denial about the problem makes one imagine Punjab replying, “I ain’t got the time, and if my daddy thinks I’m fine…”) The national press corps has decided to care beyond the occasional gritty feature by descending en masse upon the mean streets of Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Moga and Gurdaspur, or alternatively, the relatively safer talking-head-filled bylanes of Chandigarh.

The narrative structure of the Punjab drugs feature is fairly uniform. The lede’s usually the story of an individual addict or broken family, followed by a nut graf full of stats like the ones I quoted earlier. Reference is made to the fact that Punjab falls bang in the middle of drug-trafficking routes from the Golden Crescent; sometimes, this is placed in historical context by saying that eastward traffic has drastically increased due to the War on Terror closing western routes. There are accounts illustrating about how easy it is to score whatever it is the kids are tripping to these days, and how little the government seems to be doing to fight back the scourge. All of this is accompanied by the inevitable hand-wringing about how a martial race has been reduced to a zombie apocalypse.

The national press corps has decided to care beyond the occasional gritty feature by descending en masse upon the mean streets of Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Moga and Gurdaspur, or alternatively, the relatively safer talking-head-filled bylanes of Chandigarh.

Udta Punjab—which the censor board bizarrely concluded glorifies drug use, leading one to speculate about what off-brand gau mutra the certifying authorities are getting high on—is a PSA disguised as a film, and tells its story within the framework of this structure. Each of its four protagonists represents one strand of the conventional narrative, and by not venturing beyond its confines, the film has little to say about the drug problem that hasn’t already been said in the magazine stories or preachy documentaries like Sahil Bhagat and Smaran Sahu’s GlutWhat makes it work are the top-notch production values and compelling performances by its talented star cast, and the skilful interweaving of their individual arcs into a tale of profound tragedy and redemption.

The film begins with a three-kilo package of heroin (market value: Rs 90 lakh) being hurled across the border by a discus thrower wearing a “Pakistan” uniform, suggesting he is an elite athlete who’s fallen in with the wrong crowd. It’s symbolic of the somewhat comforting idea that the drug issue is primarily caused by our insecure border, never mind the proliferation of unregulated chemist shops all over the state, which led the High Court to observe that “[a] small village may not be having a school but has a chemist shop.” The package is found by Alia Bhatt’s character (we never find out her name), a district-level hockey player from Bihar who’s migrated to Punjab, like some 30 lakh others over the years, in search of employment after her father’s death. As you’d expect, the discovery turns her life upside-down, as her attempts to sell the package leads to her capture by the traffickers and a debilitating addiction that’s fed by forced sex work.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Yo Yo Tommy Singh (Kapoor, in a role only he could plausibly pull off without seeming inauthentic, despite his straight-edge offscreen lifestyle), a coke-addled rapper whose hedonistic lyrics—“Zindagi thrill hai to/Jiyo jiyo speed vich/Aazadi liberty mazaa hai saara weed vich”—have made him the voice of his generation. His arc is a sort of mirror to Alia’s; where she is sucked into a life of drugs and crime through forces beyond her control, he sees his long, strange trip come to a bitter end as a result of his own actions. After recording a ghastly song called ‘Coke Cock’ that is testament to the fact that drugs do not necessarily improve creativity, his (presumably) Canadian record label executives pull out of their deal. His reaction is to gather his posse and try to chase down the execs in an SUV; they use their political clout to have him arrested and publicly shamed.

One of my favourite things about the film is that its tagline, “Drugs di maa di”, is an insincere slogan that Tommy’s PR guys come up with while trying to construct a redemptive image of the singer as a sobriety activist, for a concert meant to advertise that he’s a changed man who has forsworn drugs. (It’ll help the case, his manager tells him.) The cynicism behind the move can seem repulsive, but can be justified when you consider that he is being scapegoated by a system that facilitates the drug trade. In any case, Tommy is beginning to show signs of remorse and questioning what sort of role model he is, especially when he finds two of his diehard fans in jail after having killed their mother because she refused them money to buy drugs.

Before the show, however, he is tempted into taking one hit to ward off nervousness, leading to the high point of the film. He comes onstage radiating energy, but instead of launching into a song, asks the audience whether they want to meet the real Tommy Singh. Meh, says the audience, just sing a fucking song, but they’re convinced to listen. Tommy says he is a fuddu, a loser; he’s even topiaried the word into his hair. I was just a nobody looking to make a name for myself, he says, writing songs about whatever I could think of, about what I knew. You fuckers took it as a philosophy. The crowd gets restive; they didn’t come here for a lecture. They demand he sing or go home. He responds by quite literally taking the piss.

It’s a powerful sequence because it makes you question the puritanical notion of artistic responsibility, the idea that our popular culture should only reflect what our value system should be, rather than what it is. (See, for instance, the persecution of Marilyn Manson in the US following the Columbine shooting.) Like his real-life counterpart, Yo Yo Tommy Singh is not responsible for the “moral corruption” of the youth; they did not turn to drugs or booze or casual sex because he sang about them, which is why they won’t stop all those things just because he tells them to. Of course, this is not to say that artists should not be responsible or consider the impact that they have on society, or that reviewers like me shouldn’t hold irresponsible artists to account, but such responsibility cannot be legislated, or policed through bans.

It’s a powerful sequence because it makes you question the puritanical notion of artistic responsibility, the idea that our popular culture should only reflect what our value system should be, rather than what it is.

After all, Tommy is as much a product of this society as is Balli, the most tragic figure in the film, a seasoned addict still in his early teens who has a Tommy Singh poster on his door. Balli is not a drug addict because he wants to grow up to be Tommy, but because he has easy access to narcotics in chemist shops and because his peers are also seasoned addicts. After he has an overdose, however, his brother ASI Sartaj Singh (Dosanjh, in a well-calibrated and understated Bollywood debut) takes out his frustration of not having noticed the signs earlier and not knowing what to do next by beating up the imprisoned Tommy, accusing him of having corrupted the youth.

Sartaj is also coming to terms with his complicity in the drug trade—like most cops, he gets a cut from every shipment of drugs he turns a blind eye to. In fact, he was responsible for allowing a truck full of the same cocktail of drugs that his brother OD’d on to pass through his naka. His redemption, he decides after being prodded by de-addiction expert and anti-drugs crusader Dr Preet Sahni (Khan), will come from dismantling this crooked system once and for all. The state elections are a month away, and once he sees party workers handing out drugs and syringes to potential voters, Preet and he decide to collect evidence and provide it to the Election Commission. Of course, it isn’t mentioned that the EC seized over 53 kilos of heroin and almost 10 lakh tablets before the 2012 state elections, over ten times the confiscations in much larger Uttar Pradesh, or that when then-Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi wrote to the Prime Minister to apprise him of the situation, all he got was an acknowledgement of receipt and no action.

It is such ground realities that undercut the message of Udta Punjab, that all that is needed to fix the drug menace is for society to recognise it and take action. The actions taken must also be scrutinised for their effectiveness. For one, it would be incorrect to suggest, as the film does, that the police hasn’t acted at all. In fact, as an investigation by The Indian Express showed earlier this month, a war on drugs—called “Operation Clean”—has been raging in the state for the last few years. However, unlike Sartaj’s systemic solution and like other wars on drugs, this war is actually a war against drug addicts, the softest possible target. In an attempt to rack up stats and demonstrate it is taking action, the police has arrested over 28,000 people under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in the last two years, or 35 people a day; an RTI query into over 6,000 FIRs found that almost half of them “were for possession of 5 gm or less of heroin, 100 gm or less of intoxicant powder, 50 gm or less of opium, 1 kg or less of poppy husk and 100 or less capsules or tablets.”

Such ground realities undercut the message of Udta Punjab, that all that is needed to fix the drug menace is for society to recognise it and take action. The actions taken must also be scrutinised for their effectiveness.

Prison, it turns out, is not the best place to send addicts. In the last two years, the Express found, at least 174 people charged with offences under the NDPS Act have died in police custody, one in every four days. The scale of the crackdown has meant that prisons are overcrowded, and they are ill-equipped to handle addicts. Also, as journalist and sobriety activist Vijay Simha mentions in Glut, the state’s prisons are awash with drugs—a raid last month inside Kapurthala jail yielded 308 syringes—and it is not uncommon for casual users to turn into full-fledged addicts behind bars.

The alternative is rehab, but again, little has been done to shore up the infrastructure needed to treat addicts. There are only 31 government-run de-addiction centres in the state, of which 26 are functional. They are overcrowded, understaffed and lack any mechanism to follow up on their patients after they are discharged, even though the recurrence rates of addiction are as high as 85 to 90 percent. In any case, most addicts are forced to turn to private centres (as Sartaj waits at the hospital after Balli’s overdose, we see a salesman for one of these centres handing out fliers to anxious relatives in the waiting room), which often charge predatory fees and follow courses of treatment that are at best ineffective, at worst harmful. As Sai Manish wrote in a 2012 investigation for Tehelka,

Hardeep is lucky to be at a government hospital where facilities are far better than the hundreds of illegal and notorious deaddiction centres that have mushroomed all across Punjab. There have been instances of deaths inside these centres, with addicts being tied up or beaten under the pretext of anger management. Some private homes in Amritsar promise laser therapy as a treatment for addiction at a cost of Rs 2 lakh. Other de-addiction clinics promise to “implant chips” in the body that would permanently cure addiction. Families of addicts are willing to buy hope at any cost…

Frantic families care nothing for quality control; they just need the outlets. Their search for quick fix solutions, therefore, is creating a demand for de-addiction like never before. Responding to the opportunity, fly-by-night de-addiction centers and unprofessional labs are mushrooming everywhere. Punjab has 98 private de-addiction centres; only 17 of these are duly registered. It is impossible to assess how many illegal ones exist as well.

One reason families are conned into these quick fixes is a lack of awareness, real awareness that goes beyond “Drugs are bad, m’kay?” The stigma attached to drug use means there is very little communication about how addictions should be treated. Also treating addiction as a criminal issue rather than as a public health issue, especially the pattern of mass incarceration, pushes addicts further into the shadows, hindering harm reduction measures like needle exchanges and making drug use even more dangerous than it already is. Dr Garg, the Amritsar-based psychiatrist, has reported that many people use tap or pond water to dissolve heroin, which can be fatal.

Here’s the thing about films like Udta Punjab: for all the talk about Bollywood as an agent of change, all they can do is initiate a conversation. Chaubey’s film does that admirably, albeit belatedly, by telling a powerful story in a realistic setting for the largest possible audience. But films like this are not a substitute for the serious, adult conversation about drugs we need to have as a society, just like Dostana, for all its normalisation of homosexuality, did not rid our nation of homophobia. A conversation that looks both at the demand and supply sides of the market, one that analyses both causes and effects, one that gets beyond hyperbole and scapegoating. We need to talk about how we plan to deal with the social costs of addiction, and not just stop at awareness drives or Operation Cleans. We need to talk about damming this sixth river of drugs in Punjab, but without damning those who are swept away by it.

After four years of pretending to study mechanical engineering—in Goa of all places—Ajachi Chakrabarti chose to pursue a career in journalism largely because said career didn't require him to wear formal shoes. He writes about culture and society, and believes grammar is the only road to salvation.

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