Documentary on Punjab’s drug problem is about the highs rather than the lows

Shilpi Gulati’s ‘Taala Te Kunjee’ follows four characters who have beaten their addiction.

Shilpi Gulati’s Taala Te Kunjee (Lock and Key) is a strangely upbeat documentary about a dark and downbeat subject – the ravages of lifelong addiction to alcohol and drugs.

The engrossing film is set against the backdrop of Punjab’s notorious drug problem, and follows four former addicts who are now counsellors at the Hermitage Rehab Home in Amritsar. The opening sequence sets the tone: a content-looking elderly man does stretches on his terrace and tends to his plants. He does have withdrawal symptoms – he was an alcoholic for 13 years – but wonders whether it was all a dream. His wife remembers him waking up in the middle of the night to hunt for alcohol, and accompanying him to the liquor store with only barking dogs for company.

Now, she says, imitating his stride, he is the epitome of fitness.

The other stories similarly emphasise the joys of the present while remembering the mistakes of the past. A former heroin addict visits the school where he played cricket and abused the drug. As he wanders through the dilapidated room where he would push the opioid through his veins, it is clear that his childhood is behind him.

Rather than a macro-portrait of the rampant addiction problem in Punjab, which been inspired several news stories and editorials and the 2016 Bollywood production Udta Punjab, Taala Te Kunjee looks at how addictive behaviour wrecks homes, and how family members find the strength to navigate the wreckage. The moving confessions and painful memories mingle with quietly inspirational accounts of battles fought and won. The tone is matter-of-fact and insistently positive, rather than strident and brooding.

“The emphasis of the film is on recovery,” Gulati said. “I was not interested in the macro analysis of the drug problem in Punjab but in the intimate experience of recovery, about relationships in the household and the everyday labour that goes into it.” 

The documentary was proposed by the Hermitage Rehab Home. When Gulati visited the deaddiction centre two years ago, she had several conversations with the resident psychiatrist, JPS Bhatia. Taala Te Kunjee was meant to be a short film, but instead extended into an 82-minute chronicle of lives lost and regained. “After a while I was certain that a short film would not do justice to wide expanse of emotions that we were trying to capture, and that the non-fiction format would perhaps be right for the subject,” Gulati said.

The partners and family members of the four men emerge as characters in their own right, serving a reminder that no addict suffers alone.

One harrowing account is about the helplessness of the addict as well as the resilience of the family members. When money set aside for a blood donation needed for a crucial surgery gets wasted on alcohol, the woman hauls herself off her hospital bed, arranges for blood on her own, and gets herself operated while her husband lies in a stupor.

“The story of Taala Te Kunjee is about the women, actually,” said Gulati, whose credits include Qissa-e-Parsi and Launda Naach. “There is a moment in the film when 63-year-old Satpal Kaur shows us her wedding album from 1977. She points to her favourite photograph, in which she is a young bride with tears all over her face. For the longest time I wondered why she chose to point this image out to me. In fact I could not reconcile with the fact that these extremely bold and confident women had chosen to not walk out of violent and abusive marriages. It was perhaps a turning point of me as a director where I had to rethink my own ideas of feminism.”

Similar threads ran through the diverse accounts, the filmmaker discovered. “At one level, the story of every drug or alcohol addict is the same,” she said. “Apart from the physical and mental abuse there is almost always a complete breakdown of familial and social structures of support. It took us a while to understand the philosophy of the recovery process, that comes with its own share of struggles, bittersweet moments, hope and regret.”

Gulati chose to feature characters whose addiction was well behind them, rather than newly admitted patients. “I had to make a conscious decision to concentrate only on those families who were several years into the process of recovery and comfortable reflecting on their experiences,” she said. “Luckily for me, the protagonists of my film and their partners are counsellors at Hermitage who speak from their personal experiences. They share some of the most gruesome details of their life with others quite comfortably and are invited as motivational speakers at several public gathers in Punjab. In some ways, they have been able to completely shed the social stigma attached with addiction.”

The documentary does not feature any female addicts. “I came across several of them during the course of making this film, however I did not feel comfortable shooting them during the course of their treatment,” Gulati explained. “Given the stigma attached to drug abuse in India, many families are not comfortable taking their women for help or talking about it in public. The number of women who manage to reach a rehab in Punjab is abysmally low.” 

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