“Chamkila,” an Imtiaz Ali film, portrays the life and tragic end of Amar Singh Chamkila, a controversial, immensely popular Punjabi singer. Diljit Dosanjh’s powerful portrayal reflects Chamkila’s rise from a factory worker to a beloved performer, whose provocative music drew ire, leading to his murder. Despite toning down the caste issue, the movie crafts a vivid emotional and musical landscape, largely through A.R. Rahman’s score and challenges traditional filmmaking, advocating artistic freedom. Critics acclaim it as a poignant, impactful film that also comments on societal hypocrisy, deserving a broader audience than just Netflix viewers.

Chamkila is an Imtiaz Ali movie about a singer, performer, composer, and entertainer who went by the name “Amar Singh Chamkila”. He was known as the Elvis of Punjab owing to his immense popularity. His songs were accused of being vulgar and obscene. In order to protect the sacred fabric of society, Chamkila and his wife (his musical partner as well) were shot dead in broad daylight as they were about to enter the next venue for a performance.

After a long time, I have been moved by a movie enough to write about it. Imtiaz Ali has thought about this movie ground-up. He has clearly abandoned all his proven techniques and tropes. No characters coming of age in this one. Nobody was abused or kidnapped or divorced. Just killed by a bullet because he was from a lower caste and popular beyond any measure. The caste angle however is severely downplayed in the movie (which I would say is one of the only criticisms).

The movie explores the thoughts, emotions and dilemmas of Chamkila. It’s similar to having a gallery seat inside his mind. And like anyone’s mind, this is turbulent with moments of calmness, euphoria, sadness, disgust, revolt, anger and consternation. Quite fittingly the movie is structured and presented in the same way with a background of some wonderful music by the legendary AR Rahman. I would rate “Vida karo” as probably one of the best from the already superlative repertoire of this man. I will write more about this song later.

The movie follows the life of Chamkila from the time he wanted to be a singer while being a worker in a socks knitting factory. So he presents himself to a famous singer at that point of time. The famous guy likes him and includes him as the supporting act in his entourage. But on one day when he’s late to his own show, the organizer requests Chamkila to entertain the restless crowd. Chamkila gets on stage and floors the crowd. So much that the crowd wants Chamkila back when the famous guy takes over. And from there on, there is no looking back for Chamkila.

Chamkila has up’s and down’s in his journey to becoming a singer, but one thing that never comes down is his graph of popularity. His songs have mischief to the level of obscenity and vulgarity to the level of audio pornography. Women love his songs. Whenever he is in town, the women gather on the nearby terraces in such huge numbers that the roofs collapse. Chamkila was the quintessential country singer who was famous in the hinterlands of India. And this carried over to other countries as well where he sold more seats than an Amitabh Bachchan live show.

However, the moral police of Punjab stand up against Chamkila. They are safeguarding the culture of Punjab from this third rate singer. Chamkila has sold more records than all Punjabi artists combined. He is performing two shows a day by invitation. The police think he is supporting the terrorists (post 1984). The terrorists give him warnings. The religious cults pull him up and threaten him with death if he doesn’t mend his songs and ways.

Chamkila continues to do what he wants to do. And in the end takes a bullet for continuing to do whatever his audience demanded of him. In his head he never thought of it as right or wrong (a dialogue in the movie conveys this brilliantly), he is just doing what he loves to do. And he is bloody good at it. Probably the best in the country. As a chamar, he wanted to find his way to the top of the society by making enough money and then he promises to think about the morality of it all. But then he knew that there were others who were doing this thinking for him already. The had no plans of letting him get to that part of his life. They thought he wasn’t good enough for them. He wasn’t good enough to even live with them.

Diljit Dosanjh plays the titular role. Diljit is an accomplished singer and composer himself. He is the only Indian artist to have performed at Coachella. If someone were to be crowned Elvis of Punjab today, it would perhaps be Diljit. So when Diljit plays Chamkila it’s almost stunning and also scary. Because I never want any musician to be killed for his art. Diljit is true to the role. And perhaps a casting masterstroke by Imtiaz. Without Diljit, this movie may not have had the impact it has now. I won’t be surprised if he wins a few awards for this role.

Parineeti Chopra is almost invisible but quietly present. For an actor like her to do a role like this must have been so much against her grain. But she does a fantastic job. She almost comes across as someone who is disinterested and maybe even disliking the goings on but then you put her on stage and she’s on fire!

Irshad Kamil, the lyricist, is the other lead protagonist in the movie who could have also been made invisible if not for the lyrics that pop up on the screen along with the English subtitles. The words and their meanings make it a character that’s playing along. This is the character brought to life by Chamkila. A character made of words that is loved by most and disliked by some. The bullet was meant for this mischievous tower. Some saw it as brilliance and gave them a respite from their daily lives. Others saw it as a tower that didn’t deserve to be there. Worse, this person who didn’t deserve to exist was standing on top of this tower and gathering so much fame. All he deserved was to knit socks and keep his head down. But here he was out defacing their sacred society in which he had no place. The low caste guy was made the symbol for creating a space where the other second hand human beings – women – were enjoying their harmless naughty pleasures. Oh such things cannot be allowed to happen!

AR Rahman’s music has been composed to play a certain role to merge with the movie. The movie is mounted on such a vast and deep emotional canvas that it can assimilate both Chamkila’s original music and Rahman’s music. Rahman’s music is the supporting character to the original Chamkila music. Chamkila’s music is never about himself. He’s just the medium for that music to flow through him. The subject of Rahman’s music is the man himself. This music album and original background score has got to rate among Rahman’s best!

Coming to the creator of the movie – Imtiaz Ali. He has pulled off something I never thought was in his quiver at all. The movie has a Quentin Tarantino-esque feel to it in parts. It feels like a Speilberg narrative when they are jumping from past to present and going back again. There’s a Martin Scorsese element in the way the threat of violence is shown and the way the Bluestar operation is shown in passing. And he has broken moulds of film-making to stick to the spirit and essence of the story. For instance: showing the animations, original Chamkila pictures while showing the story, the naram kalja song breaks the fourth wall, so on and so forth. Ali stuck to rules in all his earlier movies and showed us he can come up with classics by doing that. In Chamkila, he seems to be saying that I want to make a movie the way I want to. Here’s how Chamkila, a 27 year old man, lived his life. Throwing caution to the upholders of so called traditional systems and values and what not. So, I will also just get out there and make the movie I want to make. And he hasn’t adopted “a drunken bull in a china store” approach. He has taken detours where necessary and it worked brilliantly for me. Kudos to Imtiaz Ali for rethinking how movies are made. And for not doubting himself.

Before I end, I want to talk about a couple of things in the movie:

  • The picturization of the Naram Kalja song: The song pops up on you suddenly. And before you know what’s happening girls and women of all ages are dancing around in hostels, frontyards, backyards, farms (khet), etc. It’s like an item number with hundreds of women. The song is communicating the spirit of Chamkila’s songs to us – the audience watching the movie. It’s about how women keep men out, create an exclusive safe space for themselves to talk about topics they are otherwise not allowed to talk about and to have fun themselves without creepy men around. And within that space, who is the only man that is there? Our own Chamkila. The people who are being protected from the so-called obscenity and vulgarity are enjoying these songs but the man who created these songs is a danger for the society!
  • Vida Karo song: The song brings the entire movie together at the end. The way that Irshad Kamil has entered the mind of Chamkila and writes about how it feels to be him. The dripping sarcasm embedded in the words along with the sadness of the man is something that we can totally relate to. The courage it must have taken for Irshad to write this song without doubting himself is immense. To reach a place within yourself where you think you can actually think like the man you revere and admire and write in his voice takes guts. There’s a line that goes “mere karan tha..”; these words are beautifully sung by another living legend Arijit Singh to fit into the tune whereas they actually don’t fit perfectly, if you pay close attention. A small extension in kaaran and tha is necessary to make it fit which Arijit manages perfectly. But the point is: the creators didn’t want to tamper with the lyrics because it fit so well. All of them involved in the process – Imtiaz, Irshad and Rahman – had become Chamkila themselves. And the proof of that is in the tears in our eyes at the end of the movie while this song is playing. This song has my heart.

The only downside of the movie as I see it are that the caste angle is downplayed much. But there are so many other dominating socio geographical factors playing in Punjab you have to think the filmmakers had a choice to make.

The movie deserved a theatrical release. I am not sure why they chose Netflix. That way it reaches only us – those who have access to these OTT platforms. Chamkila’s music was the music of the masses. This movie must be watched by them. I would like to understand Imtiaz’s reasons for sticking to distribute it only via Netflix.

2024 has seen excellent films from the Malayalam movie industry – Manjummel Boys, Bramayugam, Premalu – to name a few. Bollywood finally finds a response that can stand up to the quality of Mollywood. Whatever you are binging on right now can be paused for 2.5 hrs. Just watch Chamkila on Netflix. A movie like this comes along rarely. Don’t miss it!

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