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Amar Singh Chamkila: The man who gave his life for music

Director Imtiaz Ali talks about casting and the challenges of researching his new musical biopic ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’

Parineeti Chopra and Diljit Dosanjh essay the roles of Amarjot and Amar Singh Chamkila
Parineeti Chopra and Diljit Dosanjh essay the roles of Amarjot and Amar Singh Chamkila

On 8 March 1988, Punjabi musician and singer Amar Singh Chamkila and his wife Amarjot were shot at as they stepped out of their car in Mehsampur, Punjab. Both succumbed to their wounds. Chamkila, who has influenced several Punjabi musicians since, died at the age of 27. His songs, which covered themes such as infidelity, paedophilia and substance abuse, were as popular as they were infamous. Along with a fan following, the sexually explicit nature of his lyrics, the provocative songs and his meteoric rise also attracted envy and death threats.

The colourful, short (he recorded his first album in 1979) but impactful life of the Punjabi musician and his wife is now the subject of the Netflix film Amar Singh Chamkila, which releases on 12 April. Written and directed by Imtiaz Ali, it stars Diljit Dosanjh as Chamkila and Parineeti Chopra as Amarjot. The soundtrack is a mix of original songs by Chamkila, as well as new compositions by A.R. Rahman, who has previously collaborated with Ali on his films Highway, Rockstar and Tamasha.

In an interview with Lounge, Imtiaz Ali talks about the importance of getting the right cast, the challenges of researching the story and the specific design of the music. Edited excerpts:

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What attracted you to the story of Chamkila?

Since I have previously gone to Punjab a few times to shoot, I had heard about Chamkila. He was supposed to be the most hardcore entertainer or the entertainer of hardcore Punjabis, like villagers and truck drivers. The mention of Chamkila always brought a smile to the faces of the Punjabi people I met. If I went to a dhaba, I would hear a certain song and it would be a Chamkila song. I realised that he’s a favourite of the masses and he knew what the masses needed. That got me attracted to him.

How did you go about researching the story of his life, music and death?

For the research, I went through all the details that existed in newspapers, books, etc., but the main part of my research was actually meeting those people that were in Chamkila’s life. I heard fascinating stories of his life. He came from a very underprivileged background in terms of caste, economic status, society, etc., to become the highest-selling recording artist of Punjab, and his life spanned only 27 years. Of that, his career was only nine years long. As I started to gather more and more information, his legend unfolded. Once I decided to make the film, I did not rely much on secondary research. I dived in and started meeting people that were in his life—his musicians, friends, manager, first wife, recordist Charanjeet Ahuja, who recorded all Chamkila’s songs, Swarn Sivia, Kesar Singh Tikki, Tikha Dhaliwal, and Surinder Shinda, who was kind of his boss at some point of time. All these people were very precious for the film.

What was the biggest challenge when it came to information gathering and piecing together Chamkila’s story?

The interesting thing is that the people in Punjab can’t provide any certificate of truthfulness. I found that they would tell you anything you want to hear and also if you ask them things on different days, they might give you different answers, depending on their mood or what they thought your mood was.

So I had to be very careful. I met them several times and asked them the same information in different questions. By an analysis of probability, I came to the conclusion of what might be the truth. So I would ask the same guy the same questions three times, in different ways. Then I would observe what was common to all three responses. Did his responses concur with what that woman told me? That’s how I had to piece the story, and then the screenplay, together. So, I suppose Amar Singh Chamkila is the most truthful representation I can offer, based on Chamkila and Amarjot’s story as best I know it.

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 As Imtiaz Ali started to gather more and more information, Chamkila's legend unfolded.
As Imtiaz Ali started to gather more and more information, Chamkila's legend unfolded.

What are some of the themes you have explored through this story? Chamkila and Amarjot’s murder remains unsolved, so is this a murder mystery, a musical tribute, or a cultural study?

It is definitely the love story of a musician. It’s a love story between an artist and music. That’s what it really is. Even in the face of threats, he could not leave music, even when he knew that he might have to give his life for it, and he did. But there are social ramifications because obviously this is an artist who was killed for singing bold lyrics, for challenging the norms of society, for presenting in his songs things that society termed unsuitable or vulgar. There was judgement upon him by society. So there is no way you can tell the story of Chamkila without any social ramifications.

The film does raise questions about censorship, who gets to decide what is good for people to listen to and to watch. It also throws light on how success is a double-edged sword that can make you and destroy you. It explores the dual face of society that makes you very big and for the same reason that it has lifted you up, it destroys you.

This film does not claim to know who killed Chamkila. This is not an investigative piece. While the film looks at all the reasons or all the threats that were on his life, we don’t actually venture to say who killed him and what the conspiracy was. The focus remains on the personal, artistic and social aspects of the story.

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You have Chamkila’s own music and you have A.R. Rahman’s music with Irshad Kamil’s lyrics for the soundtrack. How did you design the musical landscape of the film?

It was very exciting because we got to do live recording. In other words, just like dialogue is recorded live on the set, the songs that we hear Parineeti and Diljit sing were recorded live on set. So when Diljit is singing or Parineeti is singing in the film, that is what we have recorded on the shoot, on set. We have not synched the sound later, and it is not playback singing. But that is only for Amarjot and Chamkila. Parineeti and Diljit are not singing on the soundtrack of the film which has been composed by Rahman.

Parineeti is Amarjot’s voice in the film. Diljit is Chamkila’s voice and they sing only original Chamkila songs in Punjabi, which we have not tampered with. Then there are six songs made for the film which are from our point of view, looking at Chamkila. These songs, about the life and times of our character Chamkila, have been sung by Mohit Chauhan, Yashika Sikka, Alka Yagnik, Kailash Kher, etc.

There is a lot of music in this film—Chamkila and Amarjot rehearsing, improvising, creating music, recording. It is very exciting to have interesting music like this in the film.

With the tradition of playback singing in Hindi cinema, there is a limited pool of actors who can also sing.

Yes, and I needed actors who are also singers, especially after we spoke about live shooting, live recording. It is hard to find talent with both skills. In retrospect, had it not been for Diljit and Parineeti, this film would not have been made. I feel when you make a story of a live musician or singer then the actor’s ability to sing makes a very big difference. You see this in Hollywood films, and when you choose to have the actor sing his part, the effect is huge.

How did Dosanjh prepare for the part?

When I first met him and spoke about the film, he told me that he believes he is Chamkila’s biggest fan. Ever since he was a kid, he has been listening to his music, watching videos, thinking about him, and hearing the stories. So he already knew so much. He had been gathering information since his childhood and of all that went in service of the film.

Secondly, all the possible information about Chamkila that I gathered—photos, videos, stories, recordings—I shared with Diljit. His way of singing, his look, the walk are so much like Chamkila. In the film we have used real photos of Chamkila and Amarjot so the comparison is very obvious, and Diljit really looks and lives the part.

Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer. She posts @Udita J.

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