Friday, May 3, 2024

Amar Singh Chamkila: Brave in its stand on religious despots, lazy when it clubs harassment with fun and equates censorship with all criticism (Review 800)

Release date:

April 12, 2024


Imtiaz Ali


Diljit Dosanjh, Parineeti Chopra, Nisha Bano, Anuraag Arora, Anjum Batra



When a song overlaying a film’s opening credits describes the hero in deliciously mischievous terms – as “sexeela, ttharkeela Chamkila” (sexy, horny Chamkila) – the promise of an unapologetic sense of humour with a distinctive earthy flavour is unmistakable.


This lively number lifts the curtain on director Imtiaz Ali’s Amar Singh Chamkila, an eponymous biopic of the iconic Dalit folk-pop singer from rural Punjab whose murder in 1988 was never solved. The film platforms career-defining performances by the actor-singer Diljit Dosanjh as Chamkila and Parineeti Chopra as his wife and singing partner, Amarjot Kaur, alongside a fabulous soundtrack combining A.R. Rahman originals and Chamkila’s works. 


Delightful though the musical prologue is in many ways, it also briefly signals a troubling element that recurs later in the narrative, by casually clubbing instances of harassment with the amusing albeit crude eroticism that runs through the film. Shots of men and boys watching bathing women without their consent and peeking into rooms where women are changing their clothes roll out on screen in a manner that suggests an equivalence between such male voyeurism and the consensual, clandestine sexual liaisons also depicted during that early audio-visual montage. 


This mindless, poorly developed take on Peeping Toms and consent diminishes an otherwise well-crafted, mostly thoughtful, entertaining film on a man whose raunchy music enraged religious bigots and terrorists in Punjab, until he was assassinated at the age of 27. 


Too many biopics by filmmakers worldwide are PR exercises for their subjects. Amar Singh Chamkila is not one of those. Imtiaz Ali and his co-writer Sajid Ali along with their editor Aarti Bajaj present Chamkila as an enterprising, canny, courageous, yet sometimes dubious man.


Chamkila in this narrative stands up to caste chauvinism, strives hard to rise above his poverty, calls out the hypocrisy of conservatives when confronted about his no-holds-barred compositions, and in the long run, snubs his nose at censorious religious fundamentalists and extremists. The same Chamkila also lies, deceives more than one woman, and rationalises his lies. 


Sometimes writers gloss over such discomfiting aspects of a protagonist’s personality or journey in a bid to further a political agenda or to safeguard their financial interests, sometimes they do it to pander to fans or extra-Constitutional censors, very often they do so because it is simply too challenging to write a script that neither canonises nor vilifies an icon but portrays them as is. What sets Amar Singh Chamkila apart from most biopics is that the Alis don’t bury or sidestep the leading man’s flaws. It is what it is. 


This is a risk and one that ends up giving the film its layers and credibility. 


The script also risks spotlighting pro-Khalistan violence. Hindi films set in 1980s Punjab tend to confine themselves to police atrocities against Sikh civilians, Operation Bluestar and the pogrom that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in Delhi. This partial picture ultimately does a disservice to the minority group that it seeks to protect. 


As I wrote recently in my column in The Economic Times about liberal filmmakers largely avoiding a scrutiny of members of oppressed communities: “The fear is not only that one might be misunderstood, cause offence and hurt, but also that irrespective of the chronicler’s intentions, such stories could be misused by hate-mongers to further demonise an already beleaguered people.” However, “The counter to demonisation is not deification, or whitewashing. The counter is normalisation and unprejudiced truth-telling.” Amar Singh Chamkila provides a much-needed illustration of how this can be done – it recounts a passage from actual history in which members of the Sikh community themselves suffered at the hands of the enemy within, while doing so it does not stereotype Sikhs, it does not over-stress or de-emphasise any characters religious identity, and it does not tar the entire community with one brush.


This, to my mind, is the film’s most noteworthy achievement.  


It is because of the gutsy, quality writing in these areas that the Alis’ take on Chamkila’s lyrics is disappointing. The bulk of the songs he’s shown singing with successive women collaborators and, finally, Amarjot, are hilarious in-your-face accounts of sexual encounters in conservative societies. There are endless stories of men lusting after their brothers’ wives and those wives surreptitiously hooking up with their brothers-in-law. I had a good laugh listening to them because of their frankness, their impish tone, the articulation of women’s sexual desires, and the way they blow the lid off the pretence and propriety that our country values above the truth. However, the film also fleetingly refers to songs humourising voyeuristic men. The former are fun, the latter are creepy – if this is indeed Chamkila’s body of work in its entirety, then well, it should not be brushed under the carpet. The issue is that the Alis’ own confused gaze enters the picture here.


In the film’s weakest portions, the script conflates Chamkila’s funny, audacious material with lyrics about intrusive, non-consensual, criminal male conduct. Women in rural Punjab are shown celebrating Chamkila through the joyously wicked number Naram Kaalja complete with sexually assertive lyrics and suggestive dance moves. That they would endorse his songs about covert, consensual sex in a society that demands coyness from women is believable, but the script does not stop to ask if they also approve of him making light of unwanted men peering into women’s bedrooms and bathrooms, nor do they touch upon legitimate concerns about such works. 


Instead, that task is left to an English-speaking woman journalist in Western clothing, the conceptualisation of whom indicates the writers’ disdainful, uninformed, clich├ęd definition of feminism. It is even implied that this stereotypical character was an instrument of Chamkila’s jealous rivals.


There’s a technique that storytellers employ when they wish to feign neutrality while taking a stand: they depict a confrontation between two people, ensure that the one they are batting for is a sympathetic character, and write more convincing arguments for this person in debates unfolding on screen. The American sitcom Last Man Standing is one of the wiliest examples of this cinematic device. Actor Tim Allen on the show plays a conservative who upholds Republican Party values that his wife (Nancy Travis) opposes. Each time they clash, the writers write weak political arguments into her lines that make his views – and conservatives at large – come off as smarter and more credible than progressives, as exemplified by her woolliness. Last Man Standing does this while appearing to give both of them equal room and strength. It is no coincidence that Allen, who is one of the show’s executive producers, is a Republican Party supporter in real life. 


The charmless, confrontational, joyless, jeans-wearing feminist with fuzzy logic using big words like “objectify” in a conversation with a guileless, rustic singer is Amar Singh Chamkila’s Nancy Travis. Chamkila himself is the film’s Tim Allen.  


Chamkila and his oeuvre are undoubtedly complicated. By simplistically positing feminists, terrorists and Sikh conservatives on one side, ranged against him, the script loses the opportunity to address certain questions that struck me while watching his female admirers in this film. Did the religious establishment target Chamkila because he wrote of women as sexual beings with wants and needs? Was the patriarchal clergy rattled by his popularity among women and afraid it could spark a female sexual Rennaissance in rural Punjab? 


Caste too is not examined with any depth here. Amar Singh Chamkila assumes significance as a rare Hindi film with a Dalit protagonist, but the script does not even look into the possibility that at least some of the resentment towards Chamkila may have come from members of oppressor castes unable to digest the rise of a Dalit. 


Multimedia packaging is used throughout to remind us that Chamkila and Amarjot were living breathing creatures who once walked this earth. Scenes with Dosanjh and Chopra sometimes turn grainy, and sometimes transition into or share space with footage of the real Chamkila and Amarjot, interspersed with watercolours, animation, old newspaper clippings, graphic-novel-like illustrations, photos of the actual couple and stills of the stars playing them. This mosaic of images adds to the period feel and gives the film the air of a docudrama. They complement Sylvester Fonseca’s restrained camerawork and production designer Suman Roy Mahapatra’s recreation of 1980s Punjab to make Amar Singh Chamkila a rich and varied visual experience. 


Two components of this mix are superfluous. English transliterations – sometimes of Punjabi lyrics, sometimes of Hindi translations of Punjabi lyrics – repeatedly flash on screen. They are terribly distracting. I had to force myself to ignore them so as to catch the English subtitles. And the captions that pop up at regular intervals serve no purpose at all. 


Chamkila and Amarjot dominate the plot, but satellite figures too are meticulously characterised. One of my favourite scenes involves Surinder Sonia, the artiste with whom Chamkila performs his first duet. The attitude she throws as a star of the stage in rural Punjab, her contempt for this unknown man, the high ground she takes about his lyrics, and the lightning-speed change of heart when the audience reacts positively to him are captured impeccably by the lovely Nisha Bano. 


I wish this film had been as much about Amarjot as it is about Chamkila, but given that she is a supporting character, Chopra invests her everything in the diffident young woman who blossomed on stage. In her hands, Amarjot exudes shyness belying a steely will and an occasional roguish grin. Chopra adapts her body and body language to the role. Most astonishingly, she has also sung for Amarjot in the film, holding her own against her co-star who is a superstar singer. 


Dosanjh was born to play Chamkila. He displays incredible range and immaculate timing here. He knows he is likeable and releases that charm in measured doses to jostle with his character’s lowest ebbs, even as he embodies the determination, desperation and savvy that made Chamkila a legend. 


Imtiaz Ali’s film, like the man it seeks to immortalise on screen, is a melange of black, white and grey: brave in its stand on religious despots, lazy when it clubs harassment with fun and equates censorship with all criticism. It is also beautifully acted and uses music in the best way a film can, making it a memorable tribute to a folk hero who had so much more to give the world. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 3.5   


Running time:

146 minutes 


Visual courtesy: IMDB 


RELATED LINK: Read my column in The Economic Times on minority representation in cinema published on April 13, 2024

No comments:

Post a Comment