Credit: Mubeen Siddiqui/Netflix
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film Streaming Scene

Amar Singh Chamkila — Imtiaz Ali

April 17, 2024

Imtiaz Ali, classified as an auteur for skewering the conventional (in)sensibility of Bollywood’s melodramatic romances, is actually somewhat unclassifiable. He began his career in the Indian indie space, making films like Socha Na Tha (2005), Jab We Met (2007), and (to a lesser extent) Love Aaj Kal (2009) that tinkered with the typical boy-loves-girl-but-their-respective-families-don’t-approve formula, which but still ultimately adhered to these conventions. Adherence to traditionalism and classicism, however, was not a limitation in this phase of his career; he used the Bollywood romance template to highlight the internal confusion that young lovers created for themselves by wanting to reject the idea of Bollywood’s version of love but secretly harboring a desire to embrace it. Cut to 2017 — you see a different version of Imtiaz Ali. In films like Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017), and especially the updated version of Love Aaj Kal (released in 2020), he loses the plot literally and metaphorically. Both these postmodernist romances call attention to pre-existing narratives and conventions that suffocate its characters. They want to reject the narratives of traditional love popularized by Bollywood, including in Ali’s old work. But they’re never allowed to do so entirely: expensive production costs and the presence of big established stars (Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma in JHMS) or then-awful-now-somewhat-established up-and-coming stars (Kartik Aaryan and Sara Ali Khan in LAK) means that they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Ali has to engage by sticking to grand narratives of love when, in actuality, he prefers to do so through estrangement or even abandonment of said narratives.

His latest film, Amar Singh Chamkila, currently streaming on Netflix, is the most natural fit for his otherwise increasingly uncomfortable marriage of classicism and postmodernism. Ali has attempted this before to varying degrees of success: the three films he made between 2009 and 2017 — Rockstar (2011), Highway (2014), and Tamasha (2015) — increasingly tapped into his postmodernist sensibilities without necessarily abandoning the classicism central to his earlier work’s sincerity. Still, more often than not, it felt like Ali was straining to make something out of nothing. In Chamkila, however, it is imperative to emphasize multiplicity of narrative and form: it’s a musical biopic about one of the most influential Punjabi artists and live stage performers — regarded as “the Elvis of Punjab” — told by his friends, and friends-turned-enemies after his and his wife and duet-singing partner, Amarjot Kaur’s, assassination in Mehsampur, Punjab, on March 8th, 1988. So, the narrative content in and of itself encourages engagement with the estrangement of definitively established narratives.

The film’s form — a neatly assembled bricolage of filmic drama, documentary footage, still photographs, and varied forms of animation — follows suit. But not in service of a Rashōmon-style narrative structure concerned with uncovering the identity of the Chamkila’s killers. (The real-life case remains unresolved). If anything, it’s a rebuttal to exactly that sort of sensationalism: the film’s gorgeously edited sequences (courtesy of Ali’s regular editor, Aarti Bajaj) of people — of all genders, castes, and classes — celebrating his songs want, more than anything, to bring his spirit back to life on screen. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s stunning opening 10 minutes, which begin with the sound of bullets gunning down Chamkila as the screen cuts to black, before immediately juxtaposing this with his melodious, high-pitched voice that, in no time, brings the screen back to life. The subsequent musical montage — featuring “Baaja,” a simultaneously somber and celebratory musical number composed by Academy Award winner A.R. Rahman, who serves as the composer for the film’s entire album — doubles down on this tension. Upbeat drum-like beats suddenly interrupt the tumbi’s (a string-plucking instrument) mournful melody; dancing and death occupy the same space; the lyrics reemphasize Chamkila “shining” at a time when it was raining bullets. It’s a mesmerizing dialectical montage of the man distilled into a rousing four-minute sequence that, yes, calls attention to the form by having people on screen sing to us and not each other. However, unlike Ali’s previous works, it complements the content: Ali, like us, is piecing together Chamkila’s life through converging and conflicting narratives about him.

The film’s screenplay — penned by Imtiaz and his brother, Sajid Ali — promises this Citizen Kane-esque (i.e., fractured) exploration of Chamkila (an earnest Diljit Dosanjh). But, unlike the opening sequence, it doesn’t entirely commit to it. Three different people recount Chamkila’s short-lived life in three distinct periods. First, his friend-turned-enemy and manager, Kesar Singh Tikki (Anjum Batra), chronicles his rise from anonymity to becoming a famous local singer. Second, Kikar Dalewala (Robbie Johal), Chamkila’s friend and employee, narrates his courtship with Amarjot (Parineeti Chopra), which saw the duet rise to stardom (and exact criticism) for singing songs with brash and sexually suggestive lyrics while the Anti-Sikh Movement was at its peak in India in 1984. And third, Swaran Singh Sivia (Apinderdeep Singh), also Chamkila’s friend, introduces him to devotional music that the singer, fearing Sikh militants’ death threats about the crudeness of his songs, tries to get into before abandoning it because his audience prefers to listen to his “dirty” songs. While each of these narratives features individual moments of politically charged conflict, Imtiaz’s treatment of them all suffers from a staid sameness that undermines the first 10 minutes’ chaotic virtuosity. He doesn’t experiment with shuffling timelines, either: the film employs a non-linear structure to complicate and contradict, but it doesn’t really do anything of note with it; Chamkila’s past is told almost classically, with each narrator dutifully picking up the story right where the previous one ended it. Furthermore, whatever discrepancy is there — between people’s glowing opinion of Chamkila as a daring anti-conformist artist and other’s disregard for his low-art or “mad” naivety — is largely flattened through audience surrogate characters like DCP Bhatti who, initially dismissive of Chamkila’s art, eventually learn to value it after hearing his story. In other words, this is perfectly decent and fawning biographic material, undoubtedly more engaging than most Indian wiki biopics that stink up cinemas and streaming services every month (or two weeks). But Amar Singh Chamkila, in brief flashes, promises something so thrillingly incomplete and contradictory that it’s a little disappointing to see it slowly but surely slip into the cozy blanket of a conventionally well-made hagiography.

DIRECTOR: Imtiaz Ali;  CAST: Diljit Dosanjh, Parineeti Chopra, Apinderdeep Singh, Anjum Batra;  DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix;  STREAMINGApril 12;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 25 min.