Amar Singh Chamkila ranks among Hindi cinema’s finest biopics

Diljit Dosanjh in and as Amar Singh Chamkila. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

And that’s no exaggeration. Very few bio-pics nail the persona with such dexterity and directness. After Maidaan on the big-screen this week, here’s another movie in the list of our foremost real-life stories,

The difference between most biopics and Amar Singh Chamkila lies in the raw realism and absence of dramatization. The subject may be well-known and a cult figure (no one has sold so many albums in Punjabi as the real-life Amar Singh Chamkila to date!) but he was also a controversial personality. Imtiaz Ali’s (also the director) and Sajid Ali’s script does not make even the slightest attempt to glorify him or gloss over his weaknesses. On the other hand, with the clinically factual presentation, it resists and desists from judging him, vilifying his flaws or even presenting him as anything but a human being who was a genius.

On the creative side, so many great talents in every field, be it theatre, film, TV, art or music, have been castigated for catering to the lowest common denominator or, as in known in film parlance, ‘front stalls’ (the cheapest seats in a movie hall). A titan like the late Mohammed Rafi was once demoralized when a priest at Mecca denounced him for cheapening his religion by singing songs for cinema till better sense aided by sensible co-religionists like family and friends made him see reason.

But Chamkila was not so much demoralized as distraught yet determined. He admitted that what he was doing wasn’t the best, but insisted that he was slave to the audience that had actually made him an icon. His forte, which came so easily to him, lay in creating sleazy lyrics on incest and illicit sex that the Punjabis (including women of all ages) loved. To top that, he needed female co-singers on stage, as most of these songs were duets.

The crux was that while the masses (and a segment of the classes of course, who could also afford to buy his records and cassettes) loved his music, at one level, the purists across society detested him and criticized his lyrics full of double-meaning or brazen sleaze. The scenario in the 1980s in Punjab even saw terrorists loving his songs yet demanding money from him, with religious Sikh leaders too threatening him with dire action should he not discontinue his variety of live music!

To understand his psyche, one had to see his beginnings, as a poor chamar (lower-caste denizen) who earned his living making socks in a factory even as he nourished his music within him. The way he got his break (when a famous singer was late for a show) was fortuitous, but it unleashed a meteoric success streak in which Chamkila performed to a higher response than his own ‘childhood idol’ Amitabh Bachchan in a hall in Toronto.

Midway, he gets a lasting singing partner in the upper-caste Amarjot Kaur (Parineeti Chopra), whom he later marries so that there are no issues with her parents. But it is then that we come to know that Chamkila had been married earlier to Gurmel Kaur (Kull Sidhu), showing another flaw in his character—he wanted success at any cost, moral conventions be damned!

As success begets more and more enemies, Chamkila is stubborn, or should the word be resolute? He decides that if destiny wills it, he will be killed by his enemies, whoever they may be. He has shifted to singing religious songs (one of the tracks out-sells his ‘normal’ songs by leagues) but bends to the will of those who have loved him for songs that come naturally to him. At the same time, he also wants to know why other singers who presented equally ‘ashlil (vulgar) songs were not targeted, forgetting the fact that none were remotely as successful as he was. The sequence with his interviewer, a young girl wearing jeans, perfectly highlights where Chamkila is coming from.

The film begins with a show at which Chamkila and Amarjot arrive and are shot dead by unknown assailants. His life saga is pieced together later by his one-time assistant and manager of sorts, Tikki (Anjum Batra), an Income-Tax officer who has become his fan, Swarn Sivia (Apinderdeep Singh) and his close associates, as they await the dead couple’s families for the last rituals.

The film is in constant to-and-fro mode in unraveling Chamkila’s life. Again without any judgmental motives, it also analyzes why Chamkila even decided to go on with his ‘cheerful’ music just after Punjab burned and its citizens severely scalded in the 1984 riots—the people wanted entertainment that would take their minds off the tragedies!

Throughout, at judicious time, we have montages of the real Chamkila, Amarjot and even Tikki interspersed with what is being shown on screen. The animation used is superlative and brilliantly executed by Philm CGI.

Imtiaz Ali, I am delighted to say, has returned to the masterly form of his debut movie, Socha Na Tha (2005, a film that flopped then but is cult now) and his next film and first success, Jab We Met (2007). The slide that began with Love Aaj Kal despite its success in 2009 and had gone zooming down with the hyped Rockstar, Tamasha and another Love Aaj Kal, is sharply arrested and we see a man who has done a brilliant job indeed of a life story that is as variegated as it is polemic, and as fascinating as it is illustrative of a man for whom his listeners, as opposed to those who shamed him, were like a supreme commanding power!

Imtiaz has always been known to be technically gimmicky, but for the first time, he has used all cinematic techniques here in the perfect quantum and unique manner. Original Chamkila songs, most of them rendered live by the lead players and others, abound throughout the film, marked by Hindi translations in colorful fonts and English interpretations in the subtitles.

They are complemented by A.R. Rahman’s music. Six songs that are brilliantly penned by Irshad Kamil (especially Ishq mitaye, Vida karo and Tu kya jaane) enhance the movie in what is easily Rahman’s first truly-accomplished work in Hindi cinema after Guru in 2007—and I am not forgetting Rockstar and Tamasha again, which were catering to niche segments. I loved the catchy beats of Naram kaalja and Baaja as well. An authentic Punjabi flavor or lasting quality in these songs may not be entirely on level, but the songs fit in perfectly in the movie and with the powerful words, enhance it.

Such a film would be a zero without good performances, and to say that among the Hindi releases so far in 2024. Diljit Dosanjh as Chamkila would also be a contender to Ajay Devgn in Maidaan for the National Film Awards would not be an exaggeration at all! He is incredibly in sync with the late Punjabi singer, his eyes, gentle tones and his freewheeling performances on stage all perfect. The poignancy in his speaking, the quiet decisiveness in his demeanor, and his sheer humility and acceptance of everything all speak of an actor who has gone deep into his briefings as well as the life and audiovisual recordings of Chamkila, the man he is bringing to life in this film.

Parineeti Chopra is the perfect choice as Amarjot, and also perfectly cast in their roles are Anjum Batra as Tikki, Apinderdeep Singh as Swarn Sivia and Anuraag Arora as the police officer. Nisha Bano as Sonia also plays an interesting character and the actor who plays Chamkila’s inebriated father is delightful.

The technical standards are high, but the film rests on the base of solid content as well the exclusive style in which it is narrated. At 146 minutes, I cannot imagine it even a second shorter than it is.

Netflix presents Window Seat Films’, Select Media Holdings LLP’s & Saregama’s Amar Singh Chamkila  Produced by: Mohit Choudhary & Imtiaz Ali  Directed by: Imtiaz Ali  Written by: Imtiaz Ali & Sajid Ali  Music: A.R. Rahman & Amar Singh Chamkila  Starring: Diljit Dosanjh, Parineeti Chopra, Apinderdeep Singh, Anuraag Arora, Nisha Bano, Rahul Mittra, Kull Sidhu, Vipin Katyal, Anjum Batra, Udaybir Sandhu, Anhad Singh, Sahiba Bali, Mohit Chauhan, Kumud Mishra, Gurteg Guri & others






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