Who killed the ‘Elvis of Punjab’?
Kabir Singh Chowdhry's 'Mehsampur' is a riveting piece of meta-cinema that revolves around the unsolved murder of Amar Singh Chamkila
At around 2pm on 8 March 1988, a van pulled up outside the sleepy village of Mehsampur, Punjab. In the car, accompanied by members of their troupe, were Amar Singh Chamkila—whose real name was Dhanni Ram—and his wife Amarjot Kaur. At the time, they were the brightest stars in the Punjabi music firmament. While his contemporaries were singing nostalgic songs about ancient heroes and the romantic epics of Heer-Ranjha and Sahiba-Mirza, Chamkila’s music reflected the uncomfortable realities of everyday life in rural Punjab. Raw, gritty and full of double entendres, his songs—which covered topics such as extra-marital relationships, alcoholism, drug abuse and the more toxic aspects of Punjabi masculinity—were so popular with the youth that he was often referred to as the “Elvis of Punjab".
But the 1980s were also a time of strife and terror in the state. The Khalistan insurgency was in full swing, with assassinations and bombings a regular occurrence. The Punjab Police, on its part, responded with what is euphemistically referred to as a “firm hand". And with the breakdown of law and order in the state, assorted petty criminals and thugs used the cover of the Khalistan movement to carry out their own personal vendettas and criminal enterprises. It was an atmosphere of fear and violence that left few public figures untouched. On that fateful afternoon, it would claim the lives of Chamkila, Amarjot and two fellow musicians.
“I got out of the car and started walking with my dhol, and behind me this 6ft-tall man opened up on the car with his AK-47," remembers dholak player Lal Chand, who had been part of Chamkila’s troupe since 1985. Three decades have passed, but Chand remembers the scene in vivid detail—dropping his dholak to run towards the fields, looking back to see the man emptying his gun into Amarjot, Chamkila leaning out to catch her and catching a bullet in the chest instead. “They told one of the musicians, Harjit Singh Gill, to run. Said they’d shoot him if he turned around. He started crying and begging for his life so they shot him in the chest."
None of the gunmen was ever arrested, and the case remains unsolved. Chamkila’s bawdy, provocative lyrics had earned him as many detractors as they had fans, and he had received many death and extortion threats in the run-up to the assassination. Even today, Punjabi music fans love to debate who killed Chamkila—was it the Khalistanis or a professional rival? The truth remains shrouded in mystery.
“That mystery was always very fascinating to me," says Chandigarh-born, Goa-based director Kabir Singh Chowdhry, whose film Mehsampur premiered at the Millennium Docs Against Gravity film festival in Poland earlier this month. As the title suggests, Mehsampur revolves around the star couple’s cold-blooded execution. But it is much more than a documentary or a conventional biopic.
Blurring the lines between fiction and reality, Mehsampur follows Mumbai-based film-maker Devrath Joshi (a science-fiction film-maker and animator playing a fictionalized version of himself), who is researching a documentary on Chamkila. The one-and-a-half-hour film is a surreal, often absurdist piece of meta-cinema that is as much a critique of the film-making process as it is an exploration of the folk singer’s life and death. “I still don’t know where it stands," says Chowdhry of the film, which has also been selected for the forthcoming London Indian Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival. “It’s not fiction, but it isn’t a documentary either. It belongs in no-man’s land."
Chowdhry had originally set out to make a very different film, a straightforward—but fictionalized—account of the assassination, with the Khalistan movement as its backdrop. Along with scriptwriter Akshay Singh, he spent a few weeks in Ludhiana on a research trip, meeting Chamkila’s contemporaries from the Punjabi music industry. Chowdhry also spent a month living in a gurdwara in Tarn Taran Sahib, a hotbed of militancy in the 1980s and 1990s.
But, much like the film’s protagonist, he became increasingly frustrated as he found himself following in the footsteps of other film-makers. “I’d go to meet Chamkila’s associates, and they’d ask me, ‘Are you with so-and-so?’" laughs Chowdhry. “And that started to piss me off, this idea that so many film-makers have come to meet these people, taken their stories and then nothing has come of it."
At the same time, Chowdhry was grappling with discomfort at the intrusive nature of his own research into the militancy movement, and his reactions to the stories he uncovered. In one village, he came across a dozen men who all claimed to have been tortured by the police. As man after man dropped his trousers to show off the scars on his thighs, Chowdhry’s initial horror changed quickly to morbid humour. “I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with it, so I started joking with them, ‘tere bhi phaade honge’ (‘they must have tortured you too’)."
In another instance, while interviewing women whose sons disappeared in the 1980s, he found himself judging the rehearsed, performative way they told their stories. “My reactions made me really uncomfortable. Am I really that evil?"
So when an acquaintance offered him funding for a short film, Chowdhry put the original script on the back-burner and focused his attention on making the much more experimental Mehsampur. They went back to Punjab and shot without a script, instead depending on a 30-page treatment note for guidance. “We were inspired by how cinematographer Christopher Doyle made this film called Happy Together with Wong Kar Wai," he says. “The film had no script, but you go out into a space and you kind of wait for the form of the film to emerge."
In a sequence early in the film, Joshi (“a reconstruction junkie") tries to get Chamkila’s former manager Kesar Singh Tikki to re-enact an incident where he threw a brick through the artist’s office. Joshi gets increasingly belligerent, alternatively cajoling and scolding him to get it right through three increasingly dramatic takes. It’s a fairly simple but effective scene that forces the audience to tackle rarely asked questions about the ethical and moral quandaries associated with the documentary format. “It’s basically a film about how evil film-makers can be," says Chowdhry. “We walk over everyone just to get the right shot, and we are exploitative. You might write the most sensitive scenes, but you’re actually using all these people’s emotions to make something that’s not even real. I wanted to hold a mirror up to every film-maker."
As the film progresses, a desperate Joshi—obsessed with re-enacting the scene of the crime—adopts increasingly aggressive methods to get what he wants. He bribes, threatens and otherwise manipulates his subjects, all to capture a truth that remains elusive. “There’s this quest of authenticity that every film-maker is after, which pisses me off," says Chowdhry, his brows furrowing as a realization strikes him. “It’s another thing that I was probably worse than Devrath to shoot all of this. I had to be three notches more evil than him to make a film like this."
Adding another layer of complexity to the film is Chowdhry’s decision to cast real people, only to have them play a fictionalized version of themselves. He switches minor details around, either because the story demanded it, or purely out of a sense of mischief. For example, Lal Chand was shot in the arm while running from the assassins. But for the film, Chowdhry shifted the site of the bullet wound to his inner thigh.
“All the characters are real, all the spaces are real, but not everything that happens is real," he says, as I try to get him to disentangle the film’s narrative for me, to separate truth from fiction. “That’s what makes it so confusing and so fun."
It’s been a long two years for Chowdhry. The initial funding was only enough for a much shorter film, so a lot of his time was spent begging, borrowing or hustling for money to complete Mehsampur. Most of the rest was spent in the edit studio, working on the film during the graveyard shift to save on cash. But, as he gets ready to make the rounds of the festival circuit, Chowdhry believes it was all worth it. “I feel really connected to Chamkila and his world, through people like Lal and Tikki," he says. “I think it’s a stronger connection to him than a straight-up documentary would have been. That would have felt like a lie to me."
The four main conspiracy theories
• It was Sikh separatists who found his lyrical content objectionable
• It was an honour killing orchestrated by Amarjot Kaur’s family, which was angry that she had married a Dalit
• A rival singer or singer(s), threatened by the couple’s success, paid for a professional hit
• It was the Punjab police, as many high-ranking officers were outraged by Chamkila’s lyrics
Pehle Lalkare Naal (1987)
Sulfa Sharab Feem rach gi haddan ch
Rog doddeyaan da bhera aapa la leya
Ni sale nasheyan ne - Kundan sareer sara kha leya
Ni sale nasheyan ne
Drugs, alcohol and opium has engulfed my bones
I contracted the disease of drugs (due to the heartache)
These godforsaken drugs are eating up my precious body
These godforsaken drugs