Amar Singh Chamkila Review: Diljit Dosanjh Is At His Very Best In Deftly Crafted Ode

Amar Singh Chamkila Review: The film is mournful and festive, animated and pensive, consciously crafted and seemingly spontaneous.

Amar Singh Chamkila Review: Diljit Dosanjh Is At His Very Best In Deftly Crafted Ode

Parineeti Chopra with Diljit Dosanjh in Amar Singh Chamkila. (courtesy: diljitdosanjh)

Imtiaz Ali's Amar Singh Chamkila, a lively, deftly crafted ode to the power of song and performance as tools of rebellion, opens with a violent death. The bullets end a music career and birth an undying legend.

The film embraces a range of contradictions. And why not? Amar Singh Chamkila is about a man whose art was dichotomous: entertaining and provocative, immensely popular and unapologetically profane.

The film is mournful and festive, animated and pensive, consciously crafted and seemingly spontaneous. It is an elegy to and a celebration of a songster who revelled in lyrics that frequently objectified women but was always delivered in the form of a male-female duet.

Amar Singh Chamkila mourns the loss of a young life but talks up the defiant spirit of a driven man whose music, no matter how lowbrow it was by orthodox and politically correct reckoning, broke the boundaries of mortality.

The film's soundtrack is studded with Chamkila's own songs (rendered by lead actors Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra, among several others) and a complement of original compositions by A.R. Rahman ranging from the ballad-like and the romantic to the forcefully feminist.

Chamkila (played brilliantly by Dosanjh), his wife and co-singer Amarjot Kaur (Parineeti Chopra) and two troupe members were gunned down by unidentified assailants in Mehsampur, Jalandhar district, 36 years ago. That is where the Netflix film begins.

It then moves back and forth between the immediate aftermath of the singer's daylight murder and the career signposts that see him and Amarjot blaze a trail in Punjab's akhada (open-air folk music recital) landscape.

Scripted by the director with Sajid Ali, Amar Singh Chamkila captures a brief life and an eventful career that teetered on a razor's edge and drew strength from the ruffling of feathers.

The high-spirited music he created and the strains of his tumbi contained his message of liberation from societal shackles, a statement of intent that seared itself permanently on people's minds and kickstarted an exciting new phase of Punjabi pop.

The film tracks Chamkila's life and explores his unprecedented stardom. Dhani Ram alias Amar Singh was born in the family of a poor alcoholic Dalit labourer. The two names that he bore turned out to be prophetic.

By the time he was 17, he earned both riches and immortality. In the next ten years, he toured the length and breadth of Punjab with his repertoire of songs. There wasn't a day when the sought-after singer was not on the road.

The biopic spans from the point Chamkila acquires his nom de plume by accident and his initial struggles to find a suitable female singing partner to his quick and dramatic eclipsing of his mentor Jatinder Jinda (modelled on the real-life Surinder Shinda).

Chamkila's runaway success riles his rivals and irks Punjab's guardians of morality. His inter-caste marriage with Amarjot - she is a Jat, he a Ramdasia - puts him on a collision course with the village council.

Amid the peaking of militancy in the 1980s, his bawdy, no-holds-barred, double entendre-laden lyrics helped his fans escape the worries of a violence-ridden world. He sang of sexual desire, the female body, drugs, social taboos and illicit liaisons.

A journalist accuses him, and not unjustifiably, of being disrespectful to women. He defends himself. I am an ordinary man, he says, who does not have the option of weighing the pros and cons.

The film has a sequence that culminates in Chamkila mentioning his caste and asserting that no matter where he has emerged from, he is not going back there. I will not starve to death, he asserts. The film, however, shies away from making his social identity the principal narrative axis, opting to focus instead on his run-ins with the hypocrisies of polite society.

The Chamkila-Amarjot marriage crosses two lines - one denoted by the caste divide and the other by his marital status. The singer has a first wife, a fact that he hides from Tikki and Amarjot.

The tale is told principally by two of Chamkila's surviving associates. His former dholak player and manager Kesar Singh Tikki (Anjum Batra) who, over cheap alcohol in a seedy bar after he receives news of Chamkila's death, throws light on the singer's early breakthroughs.

The latter half of the story is pieced together by group member and singer Kikar Dalewala (Robbie Johal). Kikar's recollections are in response to questions from DSP Balbir Singh (Anuraag Arora). The latter scoffs at Kikar when asked if he has ever heard Chamkila's songs. The police officer shoots back angrily: Am I a truck driver or a country bumpkin?

The film blends a vibrant palette, visual flourishes and playful tropes to transport the audience to the terrain where Chamkila appeared like a meteor in the sky and lit up the world around him with a sparkle so intense that it was never ever going to dim, let alone die.

The jaunty narrative rhythm serves as a counterpoint to the grim realities of 1980s Punjab. One admirer in an audience waiting to hear him sing shouts: Other artistes are great but you are our own man. He is a people's singer as an introductory song, Baaja (lyrics by Irshad Kamil), early in the film underscores.

For a semblance of balance, the film stages a trippy number devoted entirely to female desire, Naram Kaalja, sung and performed with gusto by village women who are denied seats in front of the stage on which Chamkila performs. They stand on the terrace behind the arena and watch the performance.

The full-bodied and occasionally frolicsome style - it combines archival footage, family album images, freeze frames, animation, split screens, tinted frames and visual caesuras - seeks to approximate the wildness at the heart of Chamkila's world even as it slows down occasionally to reflect upon the singer's mild-mannered, non-confrontationist ways with people around him.

Diljit Dosanjh is at his very best as Chamkila. That, as his fans will vouch, should be enough to make the film a treat. But there is more to Amar Singh Chamkila, including Parineeti Chopra and Anuraag Arora's modulated interpretations and Imtiaz Ali's grasp on the material.

Amar Singh Chamkila is a transfixing viewing experience. Its music is the biggest draw but every little bit in the rest of the film is just as rewarding.


Diljit Dosanjh, Parineeti Chopra, Apinderdeep Singh


Imtiaz Ali