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Udta Punjab finds its Keats

One of Punjab's most popular poets, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, finds a new lease of posthumous life in Abhishek Chaubey's film.

Shriram Iyengar

There is no other part of India that invokes a sense of romance, rebellion, and charm like Punjab. A land of lush, green fields, happy-go-lucky people, and unfettered love, Punjab has been part of some of the most iconic love stories in Hindi cinema. Abhishek Chaubey is set to change that perception with his grim, darkly lit testimony to the state's rising drug problem in Udta Punjab.

The film stars Shahid Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor Khan and rising Punjabi superstar Diljit Dosanjh. Dosanjh is not the only connect to the region. The film's soundtrack includes a song from one of the most popular and loved poets of the region, Shiv Kumar Batalvi.

A romantic revolutionary, Shiv Kumar Batalvi came from the same tradition of rustic poets as Waris Shah or Ghulam Fareed. Batalvi is often listed alongside two other strong Punjabi poets of the era, Amrita Pritam and Sahir Ludhianvi. Except for Sahir, who cemented his spot among the immortals of Hindi cinema, Pritam and Batalvi found themselves largely restricted to a Punjabi-speaking audience.

Though limited in their reach, Batalvi's poems have had a profound impact on music from the region. Mahendra Kapoor, Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh have set his work to music. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's rendition of 'Maye ni maye' is considered a soulful and visually exhilirating transcription of Batalvi's poem. 

Batalvi's poems were first used in Hindi cinema in Love Aaj Kal (2009). Lyricist Irshad Kamil chose the verses 'Ajj din chadheya' from one of Batalvi's poems to act as the centrepiece of the song sung by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. 

Meanwhile, Amit Trivedi's soundtrack for Udta Punjab is as rebellious as it is traditional. 'Chitta Ve' is a sly hint to the white poison of cocaine. The techno rap, with Babu Haabi, Shahid Mallya and Bhanu Prtp is a very different animal from the soulful, almost Sufi flavours of 'Da da dasse' sung by Kanika Kapoor. But it is in 'Ik kudi jihda naam mohabbat' that Trivedi finds the soul of his soundtrack. 

A song that has been sung by various singers, including the poet himself, 'Ik kudi' is one of the iconic ballads of romance that earned Shiv Kumar Batalvi the tag of 'Keats of Punjab'. The poem is a loving description of the poet's lover. The many shades of a woman, her beauty, and sadness are characterised by Batalvi. In the film, the song is picturised on Alia Bhatt, who represents the changing face of beauty and youth today, and sung by Diljit Dosanjh

Amit Trivedi and Abhishek Chaubey have managed to capture the ethos of Punjab's ambitious future and rustic past to create a stunning score. The magic is only enhanced by the presence of Punjabi literature's 'Keats'. It marks the beginning of a new trend where composers turn to original works of regional literature to infuse authenticity in their scores. Few in Punjab, or anywhere else, would complain.