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‘Amar Singh Chamkila’ review: Folk hero blues

Imtiaz Ali and Diljit Dosanjh fashion a lively, intriguingly fractured portrait of popular folk singer Chamkila

Diljit Dosanjh in 'Amar Singh Chamkila'

By Uday Bhatia

LAST PUBLISHED 12.04.2024  |  04:34 PM IST

There’s a strange blip that happens 50 minutes into Amar Singh Chamkila. A trio of cops is listening to the life story of folk singer Chamkila, who's just been murdered. When Chamkila’s wife, Amarjot, enters the story, the DSP interrupts the bandmate who's been talking, Kikkar. “She started singing with him, they became a hit pair. They sang a lot of dirty songs together, and then someone shot them. Is this the story?" he says. “No sir," Kikkar protests. He launches into an anecdote about how their first show was cancelled. “And then it happened," he says. “They sang a lot of dirty songs, became a hit pair. What you were saying, it happened now."

Why this brief but entirely unnecessary digression? For one, it’s really funny, the dismissiveness of the DSP met by the guileless tones of Robbie Johal as Kikkar. But it also gets at something close to the heart of Imtiaz Ali’s film: a sense of competing narrators and narratives. There’s a later scene which stretches out in similarly curious ways—a message to take a phone call that passes from person to person until it finally reaches the singer. This piling on of perspectives is a smart way to handle a story like Chamkila’s, an ambitious young man, a Dalit songwriter, who became hugely popular singing bawdy songs in 1980s Punjab, shot dead at 27, the cause of murder still a mystery. Hated by rival musicians, two sets of in-laws, religious fundamentalists; loved by the akhaara crowds who saw him as one of their own. When there are so many stories, why not use them all? 

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It’s all over in the first few minutes, but there’s no time to grieve. His wife, Amarjot (Parineeti Chopra), catches the first bullet, then Chamkila (Diljeet Dosanjh). There's a cut to black as we hear the rat-a-tat of a machine gun, then Chamkila is on stage singing about his sister-in-law, then the film’s title in Holi colours against a black screen. For a minute, the film turns elegiac as the credits roll, the camera pans over the dead bodies and we hear the plaintive start of A.R. Rahman’s ‘Baaja’. But the song quickly becomes something else—catchier, funnier, less respectful. All of Punjab becomes the cast of a musical, families, labourers, truck drivers, schoolgirls, hockey players, each singing a line and passing on the tune. Though it ends as it started, with the dead singer and his wife, sadness has been brushed aside. 

It's quite something to see Ali this focused, urgent and fertile. You get the sense he’s finally found a story he can pour himself into. The pace is unrelenting, scenes cascading, unfurling, slowed down and sped up, flashes of monochrome and sepia, spliced-in photographs of the real Chamkila, the screen splitting into two, three, 12. Sometimes a scene will switch to animation for a few frames, as if the film’s rude energies can’t be contained by live action. Editor Aarti Bajaj’s work is constantly driving, surprising; what fun she and Ali must have had with this mix-and-match approach.

The first narrator of Chamkila’s life we’re introduced to is Tikki (a glowering, scene-stealing Anjum Batra), his percussionist-turned-agent, now a blustery drunk who insists “Maine banaya Chamkila (I made him)". There’s a debt here to Citizen Kane, which also starts with the death of a celebrity before fracturing into competing recollections of him. But unlike the jumbled timelines of Orson Welles’ film, Chamkila’s life is presented more or less chronologically by Ali and co-writer Sajid Ali. We see his rise from a penniless composer of bawdy songs, working as a servant in the home of a famous singer, becoming a performer by accident, his musical chemistry with Amarjot, their marriage and meteoric success. Rather than directly refer to Khalistan or Bhindranwale or Blue Star, Ali allows the unease of that tumultuous decade to seep into his film. It’s there in every mysterious threat Chamkila receives, in the blues holler intensity of Rahman’s interpretation of his music, in the line from the electrifying ‘Ishq Mitaaye’: Long live the fire within me/let it burn and create new life

In a break with tradition, Dosanjh and Chopra did their own singing, recorded live on set. This results in a few flat notes, but also gives their scenes an immediacy that just wouldn’t be possible if they were entirely lip-synced. The music is a mix of redone Chamkila numbers, Rahman originals, and fascinating scraps, like the old man in an early scene plucking a tumbi and wailing like Son House, or the surf guitars soundtracking a defiantly lit cigarette. 

Ali loves a martyr, and Amar Singh (‘Chamkila’ was added when an announcer misheard the name of his village, Sandila) is a formidable example: discriminated against, castigated for his art, murdered as a result of it. The film works overtime to convey just how explicit his writing was considered then. There’s a stiff scene with a female journalist in Delhi telling off Chamkila for his randy lyrics. But it leads to a terrific sequence, starting with a group of women gossiping about how despicable Chamkila is, until a grandmother argues that his music isn't much different from the naughty wedding songs they sing (there’s a moment early in the film when young Chamkila listens to one of these songs). The women start to sing, which segues into ‘Naram Kaalja’, with various other groups of women addressing Irshad Kamil’s playfully horny lines straight to the camera. 

Dosanjh resists the urge to make Chamkila larger than life, even though that’s what he became. His quiet intensity manages to suggest very poignantly Chamkila’s excitement about his own possibilities, distilled in his repeated assertions of “This is our time" to Amarjot. In two scenes an hour apart, we see Chamkila feel his way towards a new track, one secular, the other spiritual. He sings a line or two, stops, searches for words, goes again, a smile on his face. It’s a unique pleasure, mostly denied to us by the nature of Indian film, to see a singer play another singer coming up with a song.

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