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Chamkila Web Review: Dil jit liya, Paaji!

Updated on: 14 April,2024 03:51 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

Imtiaz Ali’s Chamkila is a full-on musical—down to translations of songs in Punjabi, flashing across the screen in Hindi, in Roman letters. 

Chamkila Web Review: Dil jit liya, Paaji!

A still from Chamkila

On: Netflix
Dir: Imtiaz Ali
Cast: Diljit Dosanjh, Parineeti Chopra
Rating: 3.5/5

Imtiaz Ali’s Chamkila is a full-on musical—down to translations of songs in Punjabi, flashing across the screen in Hindi, in Roman letters. 

If I recall right, Ali’s Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017) was the first mainstream movie to use Hindi subtitles in Roman script. Also, in this film’s opening credits, characters break the fourth wall—looking straight into the camera—while the song is on. The tone is sufficiently set. 

This is also a musical in a western sense, wherein the lead actor is also the lead singer. That is, Diljit Dosanjh, performing live, as the eponymous Amar Singh Chamkila, the most popular musician around the pinds of Punjab. Like Dosanjh himself!

Opposite him, as Chamikla’s onstage duet partner, Amarjot Kaur, is Bollywood actor Parineeti Chopra. Leading up to this film, Chopra had been quite badly trolled—catcalled “Lata Mat-gayakar”, “Very talented, but keep it hidden”—as a clip of hers screwing up Fareeda Khanum’s Aaj jaane ki zid na karo, at a full-fledged concert, emerged online.

Chopra can sing to save her life, in Chamkila—enough to even reprise the hard life of Kaur. No, she can’t match the hero, of course. But that’s smartly built into the character, as Chamkila works on the voice of his singing partner, later wife—firstly, to rid her of the “shehri lehza” (urban twang).  

Kaur lost her life, along with Chamkila, to alleged terrorists, right before their concert, in 1988. That’s the opening shot. The picture focusses on his life, until their death; 1977 onwards. 

Flitting between childhood, chronologically flashing back to his youth, shifting to the present dead-body and those left behind, juxtaposing music, with graphic art, clever sound-cuts... 

This is a smartly edited film (Aarti Bajaj). It’s hard to figure, though, how many more minutes should’ve been hacked, further, to arrive at a much tighter narrative still. 

That said, there’s something instantly meditative about the moments, when Dosanjh strums the opening riffs of a ditty on the single-stringed toomba, before a live audience, in a village of a finely preserved, ’80s Punjab, that’s looking on, the same way, as those before the screen on Netflix! As if experiencing Chamkila himself.
To begin with, this is hardly possible with desi flicks, when a song so weirdly modulates between actors and their playback voices. But that’s not all. 

It’s also the naturally sweet, innocent Dosanjh, so seamlessly transferring his soul to an imagined star, Chamkila, a fellow-singer, he probably himself grew up idolising. Feels as authentic as it gets.

Chamkila wished to see himself on the screen once, his character says in the movie. So does the fellow he’s speaking to: “It’s a Punjab thing, I guess!” Dosanjh has over 80 credits on IMDb, many of which are blockbuster-budget music videos he’s starred in. Like most top Punjabi musicians. 

Among films, his other biopic in Hindi, Shaad Ali’s Soorma (2018), also set around Punjab violence, remains his most underrated/under-watched. 

I’m tempted to click on Ali Abbas Zafar’s Jogi (2022), that’s showed up on my Netflix timeline. Certainly not Dosanjh’s Jodi (2023), also based on Chamkila! Couldn’t even sit through the trailer. And that’s fine.

Seldom do so many things fall into place, so aptly. The subject matching the star. AR Rahman delivering music, that’s totally as per the script’s milieu/brief. Rather than a generic, multi-genre soundtrack. Irshad Kamil on the writing keyboard—no lyricist could exude the earthy, ’80s pind better. 

And of course, Ali, co-writer (along with brother Sajid), and director—fully in control of the material—who’s similarly delved into vital questions of art vs artiste, fame and its pitfalls, within the phenomenal musical, Rockstar (2010), inspired by the Punjabi legend, Heer Ranjha. 

Ali’s had a strangely cold streak, aforementioned Jab Harry Met Sejal onwards—in particular, Love Aaj Kal (2020), or even stuff helmed as producer, Thai Massage (2022), series such as She (2020), Dr Arora (2022). Maybe he had little/nothing to say, besides the thought of getting on set, per se.

Through the folk singer, Chamkila, known/derided for his vulgar lyrics—such a common motif of folk music, after all—Ali gathers a courageous voice to question, who defines obscenity, anyway? 

Apart from religious fanaticism and violence, the caste angle—although only briefly touched upon—lends Chamklia’s story an added layer. Dhani Ram, aka Amar Singh, aka Chamkila, belonged to the low/chamar caste. Something that must’ve permanently defined his position in a pind.

Intense popularity, from sheer talent, helped him transcend his circumstances. The world is what it is. He learnt to be. And then they didn’t let him be. 

Honestly, I don’t know what to make of “sexila, tharkila, ganda banda” Chamkila—whether to see him as Ismat/Manto kinda iconoclast, or simply a chart-busting Bhojpuri, Lollyop singer, providing visceral joy to a willing public.

I’m glad the film doesn’t influence you either way. Besides to see him in the context of a musician, dealing with stuff in his 20s. He died, 27, like the infamous 27 Club (Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain). 

I didn’t know Chamkila, growing up in Delhi, when Gurdas  Maan, Malkit Singh, were more popular. 

Punjabi music itself has only lately become immeasurably western mainstream, where Dosanjh gigs at Coachella, or jams with Ed Sheeran. That we access Chamkila through him should give this precious piece of pop-culture history an even greater global relevance/appeal.

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