Throughout the 149 minutes, the actors get the acting and the script gets the psychology of Punjab: the bravado and false pride when facing an abyss — Tommy’s conversation in the car with his investor; the denial — Sartaj refusing to accept his brother Balli is an addict; the pecking order in the corrupt police and in society — Pehalwan’s truck; the violence both verbal and physical — the cuss words, songs and beatings; the surface kindness and deep malice — abuse of the migrant girl; the territoriality — of drugs, of fans, over the girl; the hint at the condition of migrant labour — a first in any representation of Punjab.
The scene that makes for deeper reading is the beginning of the last sequence at the outhouse in Sultanpur. Police inspector Jujhar Singh (Manav Vij) is sitting on the chair. In front of him, on the ground, is sitting a bloodied Daljit Dosanjh, his junior Sartaj. Jujhar asks, “Why did you even have my name on the file? We grew up together showing our p**** to each other. I got you your job. Helped you keep it.” The file is the one Sartaj has prepared to give to the Election Commission. It lists the names of the politicians, suppliers, and police officers who are involved in the drug business. Sartaj responds, “It has my name too.” Jujhar asks, “But why?” Sartaj says, “Neither for you, nor for me but for Punjab.” Jujhar flings the hot tea he is holding at Sartaj’s face. Within the next few minutes, Sartaj shoots Jujhar.
Given their masculine childhood rituals, the support in personal and professional life, the bond between Sartaj and Jujhar, their relationship is of brothers. The question the scene raises is: What is Punjab? Is Punjab a land? Is Punjab a bond? Is Punjab a vision for which Sartaj is willing to let go of his brother, even implicate himself? Punjab’s history goes back more than 3,000 years. In this period it has seen countless kings. It has fought many battles alone. It has formed and seen tribal societies, monarchies, empires, colonial masters, and now democracy. If Punjab is a value, a shared sense of culture and future, the value has changed depending on the ruler’s whims and fancies. Punjab’s sense of trust — the glue that helps create and hold societies and systems — has been, and is, the biggest casualty amidst these immense battles and churning. What then is the value system of Punjab?
Where does a Punjabi place his or her loyalty? The norm in Punjab is to place it in the immediate family, often at the cost of the larger society. Now drugs are no longer an abstraction, the deep rupture has entered homes. The vestibule of trust is broken. That is why, by betraying the senior policeman, in favour of a dream for a better Punjab, Sartaj breaks an unwritten rule. The film tells us: if we want to see Punjab rise from its hallucinatory stupor, this fratricide is now essential.
However, what is worrisome is what the film does to the real war on drugs that doctors, healthcare workers, addicts and families are fighting on the ground. One of the biggest weapons in this fight is an Oral Substitution Therapy (OST) drug called Buprenorphine. Punjab’s anti-drug champions are fighting a hard battle with the government over this regulated drug. Current rules are that staff in de-addiction centres has to administer it personally to recovering addicts. When administered under prescription, Buprenorphine creates a withdrawal from heroin and itself does not lead to a progressive addiction.
Many a time, users and staff have complained how in between a de-addiction cycle the government cuts off the supply of the drug. It reaches the black market, where — in a complete twist to its original function — it sells as an alternative to heroin.
The doctor informs Sartaj that fake drug manufacturers are mixing this drug with another regulated drug called Phenylephrine to create a deadly concoction for consumption. This unduly stigmatises the good drug. The practical flip side is that henceforth when doctors prescribe Buprenorphine to addicts as an OST, the patients would be wary of it. The scriptwriters could have used any other chemical name, like they did with Phenylephrine, which is a placebo. I checked with psychiatrists in the State who told me that no doubt the pharmaceutical industry produces concoctions, but they have never seen a concoction like Chaand, which uses Buprenorphine.
A film which proclaims to be in favour of the war on drugs ends up not only demonising the good drug but also solving the issue of the drug network too simplistically. The sleuth mission, the rescue mission, the gunfights, the haunting romance of ‘ ik kudi ’ all seem nice in a film. However, the movie shows a very simplistic underside of Punjab as a drug-afflicted society where the war on drugs is stuck. One aspect is the blatant misuse of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act by the police and administration. There are others. Sadly, in spite of the filmmakers’ best intentions, it is because of representations like these that Punjab continues to stand alone in its adversities.
Amandeep Sandhu, author of Roll of Honour, is currently writing a book on Punjab