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A star or a slave to his audience? – Beyond Bollywood

Lead actor Diljit Dosanjh and director Imtiaz Ali bid a respectful farewell to Amar Singh Chamkila, a tribute the popular artist may not have received in his passing.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (4 / 5)

By Mayur Lookhar

Biopics in Bollywood often lean towards hagiography, portraying their subjects in an overly idealized light. Interestingly, the disclaimer doesn’t call it one, but states that it is loosely inspired by real events/persons. But when your film is titled Amar Singh Chamkila [2024], it should indeed be referred to as a biopic.

In the 1980s, a man from humble beginnings became a sensation in Punjab with his colorful music. Though popular, many deemed it vulgar. While it was a hit with the masses, it’s unlikely that Chamkila could have broken records without widespread public interest in his music. Unfortunately, his life was cut short, perhaps falling victim to the so-called “curse of 27.” This phenomenon has affected numerous international artists, including Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Amy Winehouse, who tragically passed away at the age of 27.

Most biopics typically unfold in chronological order, but director Imtiaz Ali and co-writer Sajid Ali chose to commence their film with the final chapter in Chamkila’s life. Phew, what just happened? The viewer is left speechless. The bloodied image remains vivid in your mind, making it difficult to fully grasp what unfolds in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

The Chamkila story truly begins to unfold when DSP Bhatti (Rahul Mittra) arrives at Chamkila’s [Diljit Dosanjh] house, seeking answers from those who were once close to the popular singer. In a way, Bhatti serves as the parallel lead to this narrative. He enters as moral ‘police’, viewing Chamkila’s work as filthy, much like many others did. “You think top cops listen to Chamkila?” a constable mocks Chamkila’s friend Tiki (Anjum Batra). Bhatti gives the constable a stern glance, prompting him to amend, “Not the boss, sir, but the sipahi listens.” There’s a subtle class and caste undertone to the interaction that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Amar Singh Chamkila (1960-1988)

Chamkila was never hesitant to embrace his humble background. In fact, Imtiaz and Sajid Ali boldly have Dosanjh’s character use the term chamar. Would Chamkila have faced less criticism if he came from a different caste? Ultimately, our lineage isn’t within our control. Chamkila, though, chose his music.

He was well aware that his music courted controversy, but Chamkila received a harsh reality check during his first interview with a young female journalist. She was bewildered by his refusal to make eye contact. “You are wearing jeans,” he retorted, leaving the journalist shocked. Annoyed, she remarked, “How ironic that a man who sings vulgar songs objectifying women can’t bear to look at a woman in jeans.”

The words go beyond Chamkila’s head. Humbly, he explains to the woman that he lacks the stature to discern what’s right or wrong. He sees himself as merely a product of the environment in which he was raised.

From a young age, Chamkila was exposed to an environment where he witnessed lecherous village men ogling at women in their private spaces. He even oddly referred to his own father as chachey (uncle), perhaps indicating a blurred boundary in personal relationships. It’s uncomfortable to delve into such personal matters. However, Chamkila utilized his keen observational skills to craft his lyrics, drawing inspiration from the world around him.

Many great individuals have emerged from challenging circumstances to accomplish remarkable feats. Take for instance Saint Valmiki, who transitioned from a life of banditry to become the author of the Ramayana during the Treta Yuga. Chamkila, however, lived in the Kali Yuga. Despite being born as Dhanni Ram, he didn’t choose to sing praises of the divine. Instead, he found his calling in edgy music.

Parineeti Chopra and Diljit Dosanjh. Source Netflix India.

To be fair to Chamkila, it’s worth noting that folk music has a long history of incorporating edgy lyrics, especially during weddings. For centuries, songs have been composed about the groom, bride, sister-in-law, and in-laws. While some of these songs may push boundaries, they are often regarded as light-hearted banter. Although Chamkila typically performed in akhada, he was also in demand for weddings. Surprisingly, not a single objection was raised against his participation in such events then.

The trouble for Chamkila arose from various sources, leading to polarized views. While the caste factor and competition were often cited, more concerning were the objections from custodians of faith and the tense atmosphere following the events of 1984. Chamkila made solemn vows to refrain from singing provocative songs and transitioned to devotional music, which garnered him respect and sold more than his earlier colorful compositions. However, his fervent listeners would often pressure him to perform his edgier songs exclusively. Poor Chamkila found himself stuck between a rock and a hard place. He was a star who then became a slave to his audience.

Amidst great duress, Chamkila’s music emerged as an escape from the trying and dreaded times. One poignant visual encapsulates this era: against a backdrop of violence, figurines dance to his music above, aptly reflecting the zeitgeist of Panjab.

Diljit Dosanjh. Source: Netflix India

Though a star in Punjab, Dosanjh has struggled largely in Bollywood. However, he stages a strong comeback in this Imtiaz Ali film. Reportedly, Ali had also considered Ayushmann Khurrana, who graciously declined the offer. The Ali siblings made a clever choice by not portraying Chamkila extravagantly. Dosanjh’s understated nature made him the perfect fit for the role. There’s an endearing humility in Dosanjh’s portrayal of Chamkila that makes him immensely likable. While his appearance may draw more comparisons to [former Pakistani cricketer] Rameez Raja than Chamkila, one should never prioritise physicality over intensity. Although we haven’t seen Dosanjh’s Punjabi drama film on the same subject, he undoubtedly captures hearts as the humble yet troubled Chamkila in the Imtiaz Ali directorial.

Parineeti Chopra, Diljit Dosanjh. Source: Netflix India.

Parineeti Chopra, too, has struggled for consistently.  She arguably gets the most important role of her career. Though not underbaked, Parineeti doesn’t have a consistent presence here. Maybe, the screenplay didn’t merit it. Chopra is fairly competent in her portrayal of Amarjot, Chamkila’s co-singer and second wife.

Imtiaz Ali surprises not only Amarjot and Chamkila’s troupe but also the viewers when Chamkila reveals that he is married. Many filmmakers might have conveniently ignored Gurmail Kaur, Chamkila’s first wife, but she emerges unexpectedly in the screenplay. However, once she appears, she remains like a distant shadow. Kaur does make an appearance towards the end, which is a realistic if not pleasant moment. The fact that Kaur and her children are thanked in the opening credits suggests that the film has their blessings.

Rahul Mittra and Anjum Batra deliver flawless performances as DPS Bhatti and Tiki, respectively. Bhatti’s character is not only enlightened through words but also through subtle observations as he wanders the dimly lit terrace of Chamkila. The use of split frames to depict both the present and the past is fascinating and adds depth to the storytelling. Amar Singh Chamkila [2024] stands out for its exceptional visual storytelling.

Women dancing in Amar Singh Chamkila [2024]. Source: Netflix India.

Ali wisely preserves some of Chamkila and Amarjyot’s original popular music. Irshad Kamil and A.R. Rahman collaborate to produce excellent original compositions, predominantly in Hindi. It’s important to note that Chamkila wasn’t alone in facing social condemnation; Amarjot also endured its repercussions. Kamil, Rahman, and Ali introduce a surprise feminist touch with the song “Naram Kaalja,” which echoes the sentiment of “why should boys have all the fun?”. Take a bow to the quartet of Alka Yagnik, Richa Sharma, Pooja Tiwari, and Yashika Sikka.

Despite its 146-minute runtime, the film doesn’t feel like a stretch. While the Chamkila story may resonate more with North Indian audiences, its qualitative narrative, mature performances, and creative designs have global appeal. Honestly, we’ve always felt that Imtiaz Ali was slightly overrated, particularly with his penchant for complex love stories. Monotony seemed to creep into his preceding films like Love Aaj Kal (2020), Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017), and Tamasha (2015). Ali and Rockstar, sounds familiar? It takes a desi rockstar, or rather the Elvis Presley of Panjab, for Ali to regain his touch.

Chamkila may have taken a while to arrive, but Ali has used that time to craft a gripping musical. It’s difficult to say whether Dhanni Ram’s children, Gurmail Kaur, or Amarjot’s family have found closure, but with this film, Imtiaz Ali and Diljit Dosanjh bid a respectful farewell to Amar Singh Chamkila, a tribute the great artist may not have received in his passing.

Amar Singh Chamkila [2024] is currently streaming on Netflix.

Watch the video review below.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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