In search of Chamkila

New lease of life: A scene from Mehsampur  

A refreshing blend of documentary and fiction, Kabir Singh Chowdhary’s Mehsampur recently won the Golden Sparrow for Best Editing at the 2019 Diorama International Film Festival in New Delhi. The meta-film follows Devrath, a filmmaker from Mumbai, who travels to Punjab to make a film on Amar Singh Chamkila — a controversial Punjabi singer, composer, and songwriter who was killed, along with his wife and singing partner Amarjot, by an unidentified gang of riflemen back in a village called Mehsampur in Punjab in 1988.

The attack wasn’t without a series of death threats that Chamkila used to get for singing double meaning songs about alcoholism, drug abuse, hyper-masculinity, extra-marital affairs which were considered obscene by a section of society. But his popularity amidst his fans and supporters was undisputed. While the murder mystery remains unsolved even after three decades , Chamkila’s music and lyrics continue to live one, if anything they have only grown in popularity and stature. Mehsampur is a testament to the continuing fascination for the controversial figure of Chamkila who is often referred to as the ‘Elvis of Punjab’.

Kabir Singh Chowdhary

Kabir Singh Chowdhary  

“Chamkila was always there on my mind. I remember reading about him during my school days back in Punjab. I was fascinated that some artist was actually shot dead on stage. He felt like our own version of Nirvana or the 27 Club that exists of all the rockstars that have died at 27. Also I used to wonder why they called him the Elvis of Punjab. During our research we met all the real people associated with Chamkila’s life and they are all there in our film,” explains Kabir. While the tragic story of Chamkila’s cold-blooded killing was always embedded in Kabir’s mind the form came much later. “I wondered what if some filmmaker from Mumbai with limited time wants to make the film, how he would use the camera. . Camera is often projected in the market as a weapon. It’s like a gun almost. Even the clothes that a cameraman wears are battle fatigued like cargo pants and cargo shirts. You aim, point and shoot. So that’s how the whole form came to me ,” reveals Kabir who has also served as an assistant director on Tarun Mansukhani’s Dostana and art director on Ayan Mukherjee’s Wake Up Sid and Dilip Mehta’s Cooking with Stella.

A major part of the film’s research dealt with collecting information from the old associates and acquaintances of Chamkila.

“Our method of research was very kind. It was more about hanging out with them and spending hours and hours with them like figuring out their dreams and what their reality is now because at the time he was murdered Chamkila was at the height of his fame and working with him they were at the top of their game but now they have been forced to live in poverty. The film builds on those stories of Chamkila that not everyone would know like he used to drink moonshine and smoke beedis, his household and the spaces that he used to inhabit, or the stuff he ate just before he was killed. So it’s focusing on Chamkila but with a different perspective,” asserts Kabir.

Kabir doesn’t agree with Chamkila’s detractors who describe his songs as obscene. “What I love about Chamkila and couldn’t use a lot of that is his music because the music rights are with Saregama and are very expensive. If I wanted his music in the film that would be like three times the budget of my entire film. I feel in a way they cracked performance. Amarjot and Chamkila liked just coming on stage and communicating with each other. So I don’t think he sang dirty songs because every time Chamkila said something crass or vulgar there was always Amarjot to put him in line. Every time they came on stage, they communicated about their household problems or what is happening in the environment, and people loved it more than the other musicians of the time who were singing folk music which was not really the lyrics of what was happening in Punjab in the ‘80s. All those other artists came as stars and projected themselves as stars when they made the entry but with Chamkila and Amarjot it was a household dialogue. It was almost as if a Brechtian performance was happening there which I love about them,” explains Kabir.

According to Kabir, Mehsampur is not just about Chamkila but it is also about filmmaking and his own struggles as an independent filmmaker.

Struggle of filmmaker

“When I used to go to Mehsampur and hang out there, they used to think that I was with some big production because so many people were planning a film on Chamkila. So it used to upset me when they asked me if I were with the other crew. You see after having spent two weeks in Punjab, I had finally reached the right place and had discovered not only the guy who was in Mehsampur at the time of the shooting but also the person whose wedding Chamkila was singing at. So the film is also a reaction of what I was feeling as a filmmaker at the time,” asserts Kabir.

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 6:10:05 PM |

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