How Imtiaz Ali Fractures Time In Chamkila

Love Aaj Kal onwards Imtiaz Ali began deploying in his art an irreverence towards time and consistent aesthetics. It is what made his films so unwieldy and potent.
How Imtiaz Ali Fractures Time In Chamkila

March 8, 1988, Mehsampur, Panjab. But really, does the date matter? We are, afterall, in an Imtiaz Ali film — Amar Singh Chamkila.

The biopic on the eponymous singer begins with murder. There is a police investigation, there are theories, and floating narrators. But the murder we see in the beginning — of singer Chamkila (Diljit Dosanjh) and his singing partner and wife Amarjot (Parineeti Chopra) — is not a mystery to be solved, but merely the raison d’etre for Ali’s ode. The question of who murdered them is quickly swept aside by the possibilities of why they were murdered. 

Like his previous films Love Aaj Kal — the palatable one, in 2009 — Rockstar (2011), and Tamasha (2015), Ali begins Chamkila with images of destiny; of where these characters will end up, how they will rotate through the course of the film, through these images that he arranges scattershot right at the very beginning.

A still from Chamkila
A still from Chamkila

“Baj Baaja Baaja” (Let The Song Sing) opens with images of Chamkila and Amarjot’s bodies, soaked in blood, lying without anyone attending to them, with no witnesses but the gaze of the audience. Suryansh’s voice opens the song with mourning tenderness. This is a prologue to the main song, which suddenly picks up into a celebratory folk retelling of Chamkila. We must not wallow here because heavy sadness for their death is an emotion Ali wants to reserve for the climax, when we boomerang back to the same image with greater sympathy for the dead and all they stood for — freedom of expression, anti-elitism, and such. 

Also Read: The Alluring Sufism of A.R. Rahman’s Chamkila Album

Images flash of Punjabi men and women looking and speaking straight into the camera, the men out and about, the women in flowering groves, providing testimony in the lyrical language of myth-making. 

And so begins Ali’s cinema of haphazard accretion and fractured aesthetics, of which Amar Singh Chamkila is an unpolished, exceptional example. 

Progression As An Illusion

Slotted somewhere in the chinks of the crumbling fourth wall, we see a girl from a hockey team on a bus, offering her cassette of Chamkila’s songs to the driver, requesting him to play it for them. He does, they rejoice. 

In a song where people speak of Chamkila as dead — “Jis vajah se chamka voh us vajah se tapka” (The reason he shone is the reason he fell) — where students are protesting his shootout, spliced with images from his childhood, his carefree roaming through the pind, seeing men being lecherous, their frames fermenting into pulpy comic strips … how to organize all this chronologically? Where to park the specific moment of girls requesting Chamkila in the timeline of the film, say pre or post Chamkila’s death?

A still from Chamkila
A still from Chamkila

Time is essential in cinema to see how characters grow, how protagonists practice their main character energy, how investigations get derailed through mirages till they finally arrive at a resolution, offering catharsis. But what if this linearity of time can be dispensed with, Ali asks. What if films don’t arrive, but diffuse? Not the story of a making and neither of an unmaking, but a simultaneous making and unmaking.

This is not the first time Ali has deployed his irreverence towards time. Love Aaj Kal saw Ali experimenting with two ideas: To begin his film with a montage that snapshots the journey the protagonist will go through — a spoiler, if you are crabby; a sniff, if you are yielding. And to see the linearity of time as useless. If Love Aaj Kal has one reigning sentiment, it is that how much ever changes over time, that much more remains the same. That progression, progress, and change are narrative illusions.

There are no obvious highs in Ali’s retelling. Powerful moments in the narrative — such as when Chamkila first performs on stage to a rapturous acclaim; when he finally stands up to the “Department”, alluding to the leaders of the Khalistani movement, which the film never refers to by name; or even Chamkila’s unassuming entrance into the film — all these unfurl without asking for your pulped attention. 

A still from Chamkila
A still from Chamkila

Similarly, Ali does not give radical transitions in character the narrative force that it needs. Why does Chamkila cut his hair, severing his ties to a nonnegotiable Sikh tradition? We see him walking out of the salon, looking at an image of actor Amitabh Bachchan, hair short, stature tall. That is enough for Ali, who boomerangs back to milk this connection later, when Chamkila sells more tickets than Bachchan in Canada; the inspired getting ahead of the inspiring. 

What gets lost here is a rich, complicated sense of character, intention and interiority. The question of who Chamkila is gets displaced by Ali and his editor Aarti Bajaj’s bold theatrics, which work to build a fractured portrait of being, rather than a character. It is a radical departure in cinema to think of character as not something that can be made on screen or in the script, but in the mind of the spectator who is piecing together the fragments flung at them. It is leaning so heavily on the spectator that sometimes you wish the film performed a bit of the heavy lifting. But then again, why must we make a demand of order from the arbiter of chaos?  

Music As A Portal

While his early films — Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met — were fairly straightforward, narratively speaking, it is in Love Aaj Kal, and most potently in Rockstar that Ali uses ruptured time dizzyingly. It begins with Jordan (Ranbir Kapoor) getting into a fist fight in Verona, and then running away from the brawl, boarding a bus, and entering a sold out concert — his sold out concert. He walks with a stride that is both arrogant and deserved. As he approaches the mic and strums the guitar, the film collapses into his past: Janardhan Jakhar singing the same song, in the same voice, but in front of Lado Sarai bus station, clad in his Delhi winter sweater vest. The song cartwheels through his journey, singing at clubs, concerts, and at a dargah. His facial scruff and the length of his hair signify a journey that the film will now take us through, haphazardly, but with full force. 

Why do we slip across time in this movie? This is why character “progressions” — Janardhan to Jordan in Rockstar; Ved to Don in Tamasha; Chamkila the wimp to Chamkila the beedi-sparker — happen as trips in the narrative, in the gaps between the repetitions. If we keep seeing Jordan in Janardhan, the same Mohit Chauhan voice buoying you from past to present to past, for example, his becoming Jordan is of no importance, the journey from the latter to the former becomes weak, whispering, when you keep switching between them.  

Janardhan meets Heer (Nargis Fakhri), the unattainable belle of the ball. Their friendship finds him a ticket to Kashmir to be at her wedding to another man who is her equal and socially superior to Janardhan. It is here that Janardhan and Heer fall in love, a flicker that roars into a fire over the film. After Heer’s wedding, through the song ‘Phir Se Ud Chala’, we are stumbled forward again into his journey as Ali shows his hero as an artist, a popular renegade icon, a public figure whom a journalist tries to track down his story so that the story can loop back to fill the gap between him leaving Heer’s wedding and his success—his becoming

The journey, like that of Ved’s success as a thespian in Tamasha, is actually quite predictable. He is talented. He becomes famous. Ali is uninterested in the laboor and the abrasive frustration of the journey itself. He would rather stew in the emotional turmoil of Jordan and the naivete of Janardhan as two estranged poles of being. 

It is through Rahman’s music that Ali and Bajaj further tangle time. In Rockstar, we are told of a big fight that happens at Janardhan’s home that leaves him homeless and abandoned. Then we are immediately shown an image of him two months later, ragged, emaciated, unkempt under the house of a well wisher, asking for succor. What happened in between? 

Kun faya kun; Be and it is. 

Music, then, becomes the space where we experience the past as present, and the present as past in this disorienting, greased slippage of time. 

If linearity were the organizing principle, after his removal from his house, we would have ‘Kun Faya Kun’, and then, his shaggy face, yearning for a warm meal under a stable roof. By collapsing the distance between past and present, here and there, again and again, the pull of the question of how one gets from past to present, here to there is not as strong, as demanding. The decision to move back and forth is aided by not just music, but multiple narrators, each articulating their slice of his story. Not just time, but place, too becomes a narrative formality — now in Prague, then Dharamshala, then Delhi, then Bombay. 

When, in Tamasha, Tara leaves Ved in Corsica after days of pretending to be other people, after the final farewell, the shots of her face showing her conflicting feelings on the way to the airport are intercut with images of the mythical Mahiwal saying farewell to Soni, of Ved as a kid wondering why good times end, of a stage production of Romeo and Juliet. Suddenly, the emotional torque of the scene has been spun into myth, across time. 

Cut to Haryana, where neither Ved nor Tara live or go to, a folk singer performing Heer’s sadness in an akhara, over a montage of Tara over the years, congealing onto life, sticky and rotten. Four years have passed. What does it mean for four years to pass? When a 1978 Chamkila in Chandigarh becomes, over the course of a cut, a 1981 Chamkila in Delhi, where have the years applied pressure on his being, his hairline, his personality? Scribbling frantically across time and space till they cease to be of any importance, time and place have been tamed. 

A still from Tamasha
A still from Tamasha

Animation In Chamkila

Pinpricking the fiction of Ali’s Chamkila, deliberately, is reality. The scene of Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra posing as Chamkila and Amarjot for an album cover is placed alongside the real photo for which Chamkila and Amarjot had once posed. It might seem the film is intentionally creating a distance between its actors and the characters they are playing, reminding us of the artifice of the biopic as a genre, of film as a form, but there is something more playful, less somber going on here.

By employing this rupture of reality into its fictions, again and again, it does the same thing to reality that it did to time. It refuses the distinctions it makes. Sometimes the image that pauses the film is of Chamkila and Amarjot and sometimes it is of Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra in scratched, grainy, warm filters or a high contrast, blur-bokeh monochrome — either as Chamkila and Amarjot or as BTS, it is never totally clear because the film refuses to make such separations between what is real, what is performed as though real, and what is real within and between the performances. 

In ‘Ishq Mitaye’, one of the most powerful centrifuges of truth and fiction in Ali’s filmography, we see Chamkila at akharas in post-1984 Punjab, with footage of riots, Dosanjh singing on stage, archival footage of people dancing in joy, and contemporary footage of people dancing in joy in front of Dosanjh, gunfire, another narrator, played by Kumud Mishra, waxing softly on the importance of entertainment at the end of the world, and interpretive dancers wearing black, on fire. Inside the silhouetted frames of dancers is further archival footage, and there is a literal blurring of reality and the performance and evocation of reality — that is fiction; one couched within the other. The interpretative dance of people on fire brings to mind the sudden burst of an image in Rockstar of Jordan in an overflowing bathtub sitting under a guitar that is on fire. Coherence and consistency is a language lost on Ali. 

A still from Rockstar
A still from Rockstar

The film stops having the oscillating effect between fiction and nonfiction by flipping so rapidly, so egregiously, so potently, that a dizziness sets in, and the distinction feels trivial. This is not to say the distinction does not exist, but that it increasingly feels redundant. 

Paused images bloom into paintings, into comics, from which bloom further images. The use of not just photographs, but also animation, split screens — sometimes two, sometimes fifteen — vaselined flares and grain, give the impression of the film being both played and toyed with. 

But also, there is something clever here in Chamkila, especially with the animation that masks Ali’s political toothlessness. An important scene shows Chamkila smoking a beedi in front of the Khalistanis who just sat him down, threatening him to give up smoking. Dosanjh allegedly does not want to be seen smoking on screen, and so the whole bravado of this gesture — lighting of the match, smoldering of the tobacco, the puff — is rendered in comics. We never see Dosanjh as Chamkila smoking throughout the film, though this was part of what made Chamkila so objectionable to the Punjabi moral psyche. The irony of this is not lost, but neither was the irony of a “Free Tibet” poster being blurred out of ‘Sadda Haq’ in Rockstar.

A still from Chamkila
A still from Chamkila

When Ali has to show women crowding on a roof to watch Chamkila perform and the roof crumbling under their weight, he uses animation because it helps divert our attention from the immediacy of the moment — women who are injured — to the humour of it and the punchline of the moment, which forgets the women, both their pleasures and their bruises, and focuses on Chamkila being christened Kotha Dhay Kalakar, the roof-breaking artist, which comes up on screen in scratchy typography. The film is still in service of its protagonist and the film’s limitations include what its actors can and cannot be seen doing on screen — like kissing, like lechery, like smoking. 

If filmmakers like Mrinal Sen used the aberration of form — cinematic techniques including behind the scenes photographs, archival footage, and breaking the fourth wall liberally — to say something more strident about the form of film itself and about the politics of the time it is emerging from, Ali’s aberration of form is mere play. The appeal to radical style is not political but emotional and aesthetic.

A still from Chamkila
A still from Chamkila

The time-taming, the amoebic form of the film, the similar but not same narrative told by multiple narrators — this is not Rashomon (1950) — makes Chamkila not a strip, but an overlapping swirl. In the moments when the film stops its motions — like the quietness with which Dosanjh sings on a handcart, the background blurred as though smudged, the flare of light pouring in — we are inside Chamkila’s head, hearing him sing to himself, only his noise-canceling, clear voice against the ambience, setting the world into focus.

Ali’s deploying of silence is breathtaking. That one minute vacuum in Love Aaj Kal — the unpalatable one — for example, when Raghu (Kartik Aaryan), four years after leaving his lover ruthlessly, runs back to her only to find her pregnant. They are separated by glass and there’s no music, no sound. There is this strange uneasiness of what to do with all of it, not all of it coming together, but the reckless untidiness and the power of having seen, snorted too much. Rockstar’s climax is not in the film itself, I argue, but in the hours after its viewing, when the film keeps trying to re-form in the mind of the spectator, trying to make the spinning head settle.  

Ali’s films insist on movement across time and space, a rapid back and forth which gets realized both aesthetically — the grainy childhood footage in films like Highway, Jab Harry Met Sejal, even Chamkila with flared blurs, for example — and narratively — in dialogues. It is no longer about “progression” “regression” “flashback” “flashforward” “fiction” “archival”. From time has been usurped its power, and from form, its hegemony. If there is any revelry, it is in the aftermath. 

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