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Amar Singh Chamkila Director on A.R. Rahman, Diljit Dosanjh Film

May 3, 20244 Mins Read

Indian filmmaker Imtiaz Ali‘s Netflix original film “Amar Singh Chamkila” is a hit for the streamer, bowing at No. 1 across South Asia and No. 5 on its global Top 10 chart.

The film is a biopic of Punjabi musician Amar Singh Chamkila (Diljit Dosanjh), who rose from obscurity working in a socks manufacturing factory to becoming the most sought after performer in the region alongside his wife Amarjot Kaur (Parineeti Chopra). Chamkila’s suggestive lyrics that were rooted in rural Punjabi life were described as vulgar by many, and he came under pressure from religious and political groups to stop and received death threats. His local musical contemporaries were jealous of his success. In 1988, Chamkila, Kaur and two of their band members were shot dead. The assassination remains unsolved.

The Chamkila story has been told twice before, as a mockumentary “Mehsampur” (2018), and as an unofficial biopic “Jodi” (2023), also starring Dosanjh, who is a film and music superstar for Punjabi audiences. However, “Amar Singh Chamkila” is the definitive version.

Ali, who is known for “Jab We Met” (2007), “Love Aaj Kal” (2009), “Rockstar” (2011) and “Highway” (2014), was aware of the Chamkila story for a while. It began fructifying when he was approached by the person who had the rights to the late musicians’ life story. The film is framed by the assassination and explores the musicians’ story as narrated to the investigating police by their associates.

“I wanted the bang out of the way soon. I wanted the sensation to be taken care of. It allowed me to then delve into a deeper realm of his relationship with music, with society and with himself and his various urges,” Ali tells Variety.

Ali and his Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman, who have collaborated several times fruitfully in the past, decided on the narrative technique of Western-style musical theater where people sing to the audience. This “would give a mythical, larger-than-life quality” to the film, Ali says.

All the songs performed by Chamkila and his band in the film are rendered live by Dosanjh and his troupe. There are several songs in the background that are composed by Rahman, despite there being a rich trove of Chamkila’s own music to choose from.

“Chamkila never made a song for himself to portray either his life and times or his mood or sentiment, or what was really going on around him — the life and times of Punjab — he only made songs to entertain the audience,” Ali says. “So, I thought the film should have songs from the point of view of the author, so to speak, about Chamkila and about Chamkila in the Punjab that he was.”

Punjab at the time was a cauldron of unrest thanks to a separatist movement, and the public found succour in Chamkila’s music.

In terms of the film’s resonance with contemporary times, Ali says that censorship still exists as does societal duplicity, which he has portrayed in the film. “The people that come to threaten to kill him are big fans of his songs. And Chamkila realizes that he has got popularity because of his song lyrics being in a certain way. But that is ultimately what also threatens and takes his life. Society can take somebody and make him big because of a reason, and for that same reason destroy him. That I thought is very fascinating,” Ali says. “Apart from the moral policing, what also exists is the society’s duplicity and a two-pronged behavior toward art.”

Ali says that the global reception to “Amar Singh Chamkila” has left him “numb.” He’s now developing a project he says will take a lot out of him. As to what he has learnt from the “Chamkila” experience, Ali says, “Don’t complicate it. Just go with your heart and sink into this ocean.”

Monika Shergill, VP, content, Netflix India, said: “It’s thrilling to see Chamkila’s original music trending again, especially with new generations on social media. Between Diljit Dosanjh’s lead performance and A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack, ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’ has captured the magic of this once-in-a-lifetime rockstar. Imtiaz Ali’s film is amplifying his story on a global stage, and we’re proud to see his impact embraced by audiences and critics alike.”

Rahman added, “I haven’t come across any other biography that vividly captures a musician’s life filled with fame, shame, joy, humor and political intrigue like this. Working on ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’ with Imtiaz Ali, [lyricist] Irshad Kamil, Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in recent years. I hope you enjoy diving into what we’ve loved putting together for you as much as we enjoyed creating it.”

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