Desperately Seeking Chamkila

The disclaimer before Kabir Singh Chow-dhry’s Mehsampur states: “Any resemblance to actual events, to persons living or dead, is not unintentional.”

One has to see the film to understand what that means. Mehsampur had its India premiere at the MAMI Film Festival in Mumbai, where a largely cine literate crowd would understand and appreciate the quirky mockumentary format of the film. It would be interesting to see how regular audiences would respond to this part fiction- part documentary, and totally bizarre film, that defies easy description.

Mehsampur is the village in Punjab, where popular folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila and his singer wife Amarjot were gunned down in 1988, allegedly by Khalistani militants who were opposed to his raunchy songs; other theories blame jealous rivals, Amarjot’s family (she left her husband to join Chamkila), politicians and cops. Chamkila, who was only 27 when he died, was immensely popular in Punjab and in the Punjabi Diaspora, but not too well-known outside these circles; his life, however, is the stuff of legend, and many filmmakers have considered a biopic.

Chowdhry uses a film-within-film style to tell the story of Chamkila, without really telling his story in a straightforward linear manner, but capturing life in Punjab with a cinema verité curiosity—ugly urban landscapes with the ubiquitous criss-crossing cables, and beautiful rural vistas. The kind of milieu that could have produced an entertainer who would sing bawdy numbers, lament the dark side of Punjabi life and belt out devotional songs with equal ease.

Devrath (filmmaker Devrath Joshi) sets out with a handicam to research the life of Chamkila for a film he is planning to make. He discovers during his travels that other big budget films are being made on Chamkila and anyone who had anything to do with the hugely popular songwriter-composer-singer has already flogged their story. Still, Devrath (and in reality Chowdhry) miraculously manages to get Chamkila’s manager Kesar Singh Tikki, his dholak player Lal Chand (who was also hit during the hail of bullets that killed Chamkila but survived) and his former singing partner Surinder Sonia to play semi-fictional versions of themselves.

Devrath runs into wannabe actress Manpreet (Navjot Randhawa),  in a restaurant (where a grim-faced singer croons English songs in a Punjabi accent); she hooks up with him in his hotel room (the sex scenes would never get past Indian censors) and then panics, as Dev tries to convince her and himself that what happened was consensual and not rape.

Manpreet’s behaviour gets increasingly erratic, as Devrath almost abducts her to drive with him to Mehsampur. He also plies Lal Chand with drink and takes the unwilling percussionist along on the trip to the place where Chamkila was shot dead, so that he can visit the actual spots and recreate the killing with a morbid glee. On the way, Lal Chand and Manpreet form their own bond.

When Devrath discovers that Lal Chand’s dholak abandoned in a field during the massacre had been found, he drags the two on a hunt for the drum. By this time, Devrath’s (or Chowdhry’s) powers of persuasion or capacity for bullying have already been established—he simply won’t take no for an answer. (In an earlier hilarious scene, he gets Tikki to enact the incident when he had drunkenly stoned the windows of Chamkila’s office.)

After watching Mehsampur, a kind of narrative can be pieced together, but while the film is on, it moves in a totally unpredictable way, often with inexplicable scenes and uncharted progression, as if the script (by Akshay Singh) was written as they went along, and that is apparently how Chowdhry worked, chucking the set rules of a biopic and creating his own, adding to it his own prankish sense of the absurd.  Mehsampur is as wildly creative as it is chaotic—a very exciting debut film.