Beneath Amar Singh Chamkila’s risqué gloss and sheen was a disregard for power structures - Hindustan Times
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Beneath Amar Singh Chamkila’s risqué gloss and sheen was a disregard for power structures

Apr 23, 2024 08:13 PM IST

The Imtiaz Ali film about Chamkila brings into focus India’s non-Bollywood music industry. One that has its own stars, heroes, villains and sometimes martyrs

Who would’ve thought that a socks factory worker from Punjab’s hinterland would one day capture the imagination of the whole nation? That too 36 years after his untimely and violent death. After a short life of just 27 years and an even shorter but rocket-like career, Amar Singh Chamkila is today captured in a slick musical that is wowing audiences from Srinagar to Sriperumbudur. What’s more, this surprise hit by director Imtiaz Ali comes in an election year that is being fiercely fought with many films tackling revisionist ideas of India and the icons who played key roles in its founding.

Amar Singh Chamkila is a brilliant biopic of a music maker about whom most of us didn’t know anything until the movie came out. PREMIUM
Amar Singh Chamkila is a brilliant biopic of a music maker about whom most of us didn’t know anything until the movie came out.

Amar Singh Chamkila is a brilliant biopic of a music maker about whom most of us didn’t know anything until the movie came out.

Set in the dark days of terror and militancy in Punjab, Chamkila is an accidental performer who gets his big break when he’s asked to fill in for a singing star. After that accidental performance, Punjab, or its music, is not the same. His spontaneous rapport with his audiences and his ability to weave their reactions into his lyrics are an instant hit. Crowds begin to flock to his village concerts like Black Friday shoppers.

It is not for nothing that he is called “kotha dhau kalakar”: An incident shown in the film shows a brick terrace caving in because of a massive crowd of women who have collected to watch him perform.

Non-Bollywood music in focus

It is a film that brings into focus India’s non-Bollywood music industry. One that has its own stars, heroes, villains and sometimes martyrs – independent musicians who made and continue to make music without the budgets and teams associated with big film productions.

It is also an underground industry that has less censorship and more artistic freedom. This is a key differentiator because it allows artists and musicians to take great stylistic leaps and create their own genres of music. Chamkila with his one-string tumbi is as much of a rockstar as Kurt Cobain is with his guitar.

Years ago, I remember doing a documentary on singer Taru Dalmia who also goes by the name “Delhi Sultanate”. In it, Dalmia talks about his collaboration with Bant Singh, a Dalit Sikh singer from Punjab. Singh had no hands and only one half of a leg after he was brutally beaten by upper caste men for insisting on police action against the rapists of his minor daughter in 2002.

Singh became a singer of resistance who made and sang songs against the oppressive feudalism of his society.

Chamkila wasn’t like Singh. His songs were not about resistance and caste atrocities, although he does suffer because of being a Dalit. He is often caught in the ceaseless crossfires of 1980s Punjab: between orthodox Sikhs, secessionists and extortionists. “Har kisi ki sahi-galat sochne ki aukat nahi hoti,” he tells an interviewer, “jaise-taise kar ke zinda rehna hota hai”. (Not everybody can afford to think about right and wrong, some of us just have to survive).

There is no lack of irony in the fact that it took a Bollywood film to make a case for Chamkila’s life and music. And an internationally-acclaimed, Oscar-certified music director A.R. Rahman to repackage Chamkila for the rest of India.

It is Imtiaz Ali’s first biopic, his other films have mostly been romances that explore the minds of people in love and the unexpected ways their stories play out. In that, it is a departure from Ali’s oeuvre. Chamkila’s first love is his music. A close second is his wife and duet-partner Amarjot Kaur. Together they sing across Punjab during its bleakest days (since Partition). They sing about lovers: jilted lovers, lovers meeting on the sly, extra-marital love and desire—all dressed up in the naughty euphemisms of their time.

A scene in the film has an older lady call their songs “gandey gaane” (dirty songs) to which the grandmother of the house retorts: they’re no different from the songs at weddings. Granny then goes on to say that she also secretly listens to Chamkila.

In a TV interview, Ali termed his protagonist’s X factor as “Chamkilaness”, which literally means his shininess but it’s much more than that. It is something that makes Chamkila’s life and art irresistible to his audience. It is his quiet audacity. And his romantic defiance of power structures.

Chamkila’s defiance made him sing from rooftops about aspects of life not to be spoken of, especially when there are killings and bombings every other day when you don’t know where and when militants may strike next. He was called to the homes of the high and mighty and threatened to back down and stop singing his songs but his popularity didn’t let him.

His popularity took him to foreign shores as well. While in the US for a show, the organiser had told him that the venue was the same where actor Amitabh Bachchan performed a few days back. The organiser went on to explain that the number of extra seats, which had to be put in the venue for his show were more than those for Bachchan, his idol. Chamkila, as it turned out, did not really care: He just wanted to sing.

As with the artist Chamkila, many are also upset with Ali, for glorifying a raunchy singer. Three and half decades after his death, many still have an issue about the “gandey gaane”.

The songs are more than just lyrics that feel those who see beyond the seemingly risque language: It is about being accosted with difficult truths. In the film, the lyrics are made to jump at the viewer with their bold Insta-reel style graphics — with translations, so that none of the original meaning is left out. Be it about ‘my snake between your thighs’ or ‘watching the sister-in-law bathe’. It is a contextual point being made by the filmmaker and it is not lost on people watching the film today.

Something also needs to be said about the politics of Chamkila and why it is turning out to be a conveyor of a sort of mass catharsis. Is it a story that has the deepest kind of resonance with everyone? Or it is a sign of the times when music itself is trying to break free?

We know how Carnatic musicians ganged up against T.M. Krishna’s Music Academy award. The pretext was that he was meddling too much with the scriptural traditions of classical music. Krishna has been a committed critic of the insularity of classical musicians, especially against those who are not from the higher castes. Chamkila in his posthumous avatar is perhaps showing us the way forward, even though he was not so lucky. He and Amarjot paid with their lives for their music.

Dhiraj Singh is the author of the novel ‘Master O'. He is associate dean and director of Dadasaheb Phalke International Film School and department of Media and Communication at MIT World Peace University. He was formerly executive director, Lok Sabha Television

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