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Entertainment Review: Amar Singh Chamkila

The mystique of Amar Singh Chamkila endures over three decades after his murder, because his rise was meteoric, and his death so sudden and brutal, that the 27-year-old music star did not get to face the oblivion he believed was the fate of every artiste.

The incendiary times he lived in, the sheer number of admirers and detractors he collected in that short span, would make the story attractive to filmmakers. A documentary, Mehsampur, by Kabir Singh, a web series Chamak inspired by him and now Imtiaz Ali’s epic tribute )on Netflix) to the popular singer, who ruled the Punjabi music industry in the 1980s and was known for his bawdy lyrics. When he is embarrassed to look at a journalist wearing jeans, she sneers at him for writing such sexist lyrics and pretending to be shy. His naive answer is that he writes about what he has seen, and he has not seen too many women in pants. Diljit Dosanjh, a singer himself, fits right into the part of the controversial singer, with Parineeti Chopra playing Amarjot Kaur, his wife, who was gunned down along with him. The case remains unsolved—did militants kill him, religious fundamentalists, rivals or cops?

By today’s standards, Chamkila’s lyrics sound tame, but back then, the imagery of forbidden sex, shocked as well as titillated listeners, and he became the top-selling artiste in the state, even when, under fear of assassination, he released an album of devotional songs.

Imtiaz Ali’s film, co-written by him and Sajid Ali, with AR Rahman composing original music as well as using Chamkila’s songs, recreated the legend of a Dalit Dhani Ram, working in a sock factory, who with a mix of dedication and luck, becomes a singing sensation with the Amitabh Bachchan hair style and swagger. He gets his first break, when his employer, a singer who has been filching his lyrics, shows up late for a show, and the young man, named Chamkila on the spot, is pushed to sing and placate a restive crowd.

A loyal friend, dholak player Tikki (Anjum Batra) steers Chamkila to success, and stands by him when an already married man, weds his partner Amarjot, to protect the partnership.

The film begins with the murder and then the story is narrated by his band mates and friends, as a cop (Apinderdeep Singh), who starts being contemptuous of the singer, gradually starts to understand the factors that created as well as destroyed the Chamkila phenomenon.

Dosanjh plays him with an innocence – a man who fills large concert venues with frenzied fans –mostly male– is touchingly admiring of Bachchan; the same innocence makes him fearless when there are hate campaigns and death threats.

Ali uses animation, photos and footage of the real Chamkila and Amarjot, and a fantastic dance number which shows why women also liked his raunchy numbers, to tell the story that took too long to reach the screen. Maybe it was waiting for the right actor to bring Chamkila to life.

Amar Singh Chamkila

Directed by Imtiaz Ali

Cast: Diljit Dosanjh, Parineeti Chopra, Apinderdeep Singh, Anjum Batra and others.

On Neflix

Deepa Gahlot
Deepa Gahlot is one of India’s seniormost and best-known entertainment journalists. A National Award-winning fim critic and author of several books on film and theatre. She tweets at @deepagahlot

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