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

The music of Imtiaz Ali’s upcoming Netflix film is composed by A.R. Rahman, and the lyrics are penned by Irshad Kamil.
The Alluring Sufism of A.R. Rahman’s Chamkila Album
The Alluring Sufism of A.R. Rahman’s Chamkila Album

More than a decade ago, the composer Amit Trivedi was travelling through Punjab researching the mustard musical landscape for a film called Chamkila. A biopic on the controversial Punjabi singer Amar Singh Chamkila and his partner — in art as in life, his second wife — Amarjot Kaur, a popular musical duo in Eighties Punjab, Trivedi was scouring for the seeds and strains of their art dripping of dirt. Their sold out performances in akharas and marriage halls, with ribald lyrics, troubled both the Khalistani movement which was then at its height, as well as prudes. 

In 1988, on their way to a performance, Amarjot and Chamkila were both assassinated in Mehsampur, a village in Punjab. The Khalistanis were prime suspects, though Chamkila’s close friend and lyricist Sawarn Sivia is sceptical of this because he had mediated a truce between the Khalistanis and Chamkila, making sure Chamkila henceforth sings songs that alleviate Punjab and Sikh identity in the collective imagination. Others, however, say that in his subsequent performances and tours across Canada, he had broken that promise now and again on stage. 

The murder itself remains unsolved, swirling theories wondering if the marriage of Amar Singh Chamkila — born Dhanni Ram, a Dalit — to upper caste Amarjot Kaur might have provoked an honour killing. Professional rivalry is another floating prospect. Who knows, which possibility is built on the foundation of which prejudice?

Fodder for Postured Filmmaking

Trivedi was in pursuit of a voice that would best embody the stature of Chamkila — called the “The Elvis Of Punjab” for those needing a cultural translation, because of his ability to elicit or express the untapped desire in his audience, through his double entendre lyrics, if not necessarily through his persona; he isn’t sexy. Trivedi found Devinder Singh and called him to Mumbai to record a few songs. While the Chamkila film did not take off, Trivedi used him in Coke Studio, and later, in Jubilee, in ‘Saare Ke Saare’, an ode to Mohammad Rafi in ‘Dekhi Zamane Ki Yaari’, but also invoking the story of Kishore Kumar; that a voice meant to be Chamkila became Rafi’s surrogate, instead. Odes are fungible. 

Another Chamkila biopic fated for incompletion, the destiny of many attempts by filmmakers to bottle the starry tragedy of Chamkila into a film was parodied by filmmaker Kabir Singh Chowdhury whose raucous hybrid-documentary Mehsampur (2018) spoofs a documentary director trying to use people close to Chamkila who are still around — his dholak player Lal Chand, who had been part of Chamkila’s troupe since 1985 and Chamkila’s former manager Kesar Singh Tikki — to recreate moments, like the final gunning down. In a pithy lament, Lal Chand says to himself, “Almighty lord, I can’t complain if you decided to take Chamkila, but what about the people who bother me for his memory. Can you send Chamkila back so I’ll be spared of this?”

It is not hard to imagine why filmmakers are drawn to the figure of Chamkila, for commercial art has always attempted to co-opt the seedy underbelly to burnish its own reputation as serrated, to bring the periphery to the centre, hoping the centre is revitalised in this act. These are postures of marginality while enjoying the fulcral spotlight. Valorizing the vitiated is a time-tested tradition that courses through veins of cinema. 

Chamkila and Amarjot
Chamkila and Amarjot

To Create or to Revere

Music critic Bhanuj Kappal writes, “While [Chamkila’s] contemporaries were singing nostalgic songs about ancient heroes and the romantic epics of Heer-Ranjha and Sahiba-Mirza, Chamkila’s music reflected the uncomfortable realities of everyday life in rural Punjab.” The uncomfortable realities could be alcoholism and drug abuse. 

“Ni sale nasheyan ne

Kundan sareer sara kha leya”

(These godforsaken drugs are eating up my pure gold-like body)

Chamkila also wrote songs of partition, ‘Baba Tera Nankana’, a eulogy to Nankana Sahib, an important religious site which, post partition, was arbitrarily marooned into Pakistan.

“Saton baba khohliya tera nankana”

(Baba your Nankana has been yanked from us)

But his songs could also be about men bemoaning that a woman loses nothing from being touched by a man’s gaze, or more notoriously, a man eyeing his brother’s wife bathing in the afternoon sun, or a woman singing ‘Jija Lakk Minn Lae’ (Brother-in-law, swing your waist). Both, the cultural resentments and the nada-loosening existed alongside each other. 

How do you, then, musically give voice to Chamkila’s story? 

For one, director Imtiaz Ali and composer A.R. Rahman — whose collaboration began with Rockstar (2011), solidified in Highway (2014), and burst new, discursive forms of musical thought in Tamasha (2015) — in the upcoming Netflix biopic Chamkila decide to foreground their artistry even as they tap into Chamkila’s oeuvre. They utilise his compositions, but not merely by being parasitic, they also create art in its shadow. To not be tied down by the source material, and to not let reverence for the fallen artist dictate the living artist’s voice.

A.R. Rahman decided to do two things — to musically express Chamkila and to have Chamkila musically express as two different, parallel soundtracks. The songs of Chamkila, played by Diljit Dosanjh, and his wife Amarjot, played by Parineeti Chopra, will be recreated in the voices of Dosanjh and Chopra, in a sync-sound format; Rahman had sent his music producer, Hiral Viradia, and team to the film set to make sure the recordings on set are clear, without ambient distortions. Dosanjh and Chopra also underwent extensive training with Rahman. 

Imtiaz Ali and AR Rahman
Imtiaz Ali and AR Rahman

For the album, however, we have songs about and around, not by Chamkila, composed by Rahman. Many voices float in and out, as both outside narrators or inner voices of the two. The lyrics are penned by Irshad Kamil, Ali’s trusted translator of thought and feeling. Kamil made a beeline from Malerkotla in Punjab to Mumbai via brief pit stops in Chandigarh and Delhi, and has worked with Ali since his debut in Socha Na Tha (2005); it was their collective debut, sort of. While Punjab has always figured in patches in Ali’s storytelling, and so has Kamil’s lyrical renderings of it, Chamkila is a complete immersion, and Kamil’s return to his birthplace.

Romance and Rahman in Ali’s Films

The album opens with ‘Ishq Mitaye’, a goosefleshing anthem where Mohit Chauhan is the personified voice of Chamkila as Punjab—“Mein hoon Punjab”. Through Rockstar, Chauhan — the voice of the rockstar Jordan — was made the abscess of aberration, of generational angst that is ripped out not as a rough, unkempt voice, but a whisky-smooth rebellion. That his voice is used to conjure the power, pathos, and play of Punjab in Chamkila is unsurprising, with Punjab singing of itself, referencing both its pungent pigments (“Mere aage duniya ka rang saara pheeka”, all the world’s colour falls short of mine) and partition (“Apne lahu se hi lagaya maine teeka”, I have been christened by my very blood). 

Kamil writes, “Ishq mitaye… Ishq banaye”, that love breaks, that love makes, the making coming after the breaking. Kamil often employs these contradictions, slippery complications, like how in ‘Safarnama’ from Tamasha, the dawn ‘purana bhi, naya bhi hai,’ is both new and old, here, love, too, is both making and unmaking. He keeps toying with dichotomies, asking, are they really two different things? All of these ambiguities, poetic dissonances sizzle away into an unambiguous chant, “Mein hoon Punjab”, like a protest prayer, running its power up your spine, like a shot of cheap rum making its corrosive warmth up from the stomach to the ears in one wave-like motion. 

Sufism That Resists but Assimilates

In ‘Naram Kaalija’, the hip-pinching notoriety of Chamkila’s music is voiced by the women who enjoy it. It is strange to have both Alka Yagnik’s voice, which has this melodic, sexless innocence — like her duet partner of the Aughts, Udit Narayan — and Richa Sharma’s rough hewn jute-like texture, repeat lines after each other, giving a range of sound that is neither young, nor erotic, but winking and jubilant, like wedding music. The onomatopoeic “Daingad”, which Kamil used previously in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014), is chanted like a siren song of sexuality here. 

Age has never been a crippling consideration for Rahman, for example using the voice of a then-62-year-old Asha Bhosle over the then-22-year-old Urmila Mantonkar in Rangeela’s (1995) ‘Tanha Tanha’. He says “Aawaz ki koi umar nahi hoti”, that there is no age to voice, but of course there is a discernible age, and by thrusting older voices on younger women, like in ‘Naram Kaalija’ there is a spiky, almost disorienting discordance, one that draws attention to itself, which Rahman loves to do through his soundscapes. If there is something we can trust in a Rahman score, it is for it to never fade into the background — given its lush, almost dense, overwhelming arrangements, even The New York Times pulling up his “goopy synthesiser passages”.

Calling men “aish ka samaan”, an object of female pleasure, the song reverses the gaze not by reforming it, but by giving it back, by acknowledging its presence, and replying to it in the same language of unbridled, unhesitant lust. The infamous bhabhi-devar relation, too, is stoked. 

“Devar ki bhabhi ji hoon main,

Rishte qaboolun par main na bhoolun

Kaise bujhani hai jo agg jag jaye, 

Jalta badan jo mera ho

Gupchup gupchup ye na samjhi tera hi hai jee karda,

Gupchup gupchup tumse zyada mera bhi hai jee karda”

(The sister-in-law to my brother-in-law,

I acknowledge this connection, but how can I forget,

To extinguish a fire that consumes my body.

Secretly you yearn for me, I did not know. 

Secretly, I yearn more, for you.) 

Ali and Kamil have previously worked on songs that scratch on the film’s surface an exclusively female chorus, with no space for men or their voices. From Rockstar’s ‘Katiya Karoon’ to Love Aaj Kal’s (2009) ‘Thoda Thoda Pyaar’. Even though Tamasha’s ‘Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai’ is sung by Mika Singh, the subjectivity of trying to be inside the head of its slowly decaying female protagonist completely makes the male perspective mute, even as the male voice is used. 

This is no second-wave feminism, uninterested in critique, much like Kamil-Ali’s philosophical reach, which does not exceed their Rumi-in-translation grasp; it is content with clarion calls to freedom, wrapped in gorgeous metaphor, such that the beauty of the metaphor becomes the beauty of its meaning; here metaphor doesn’t aid meaning, it is it. 

“Chal hawa bana ud jaawaan, 

Sama bana gum jaawaan”

(Come, let’s become the wind and soar away

Come, let’s become the sky and be astray)

But it is also strange to see how ‘Sufism’ which always insisted on standing apart from society is being used so convincingly — through rousing poetry, pulping melody — to stand within society, with an illusion of standing apart. Close to being rendered banal by overuse, how much Bulleh Shah can we cite, as is done in the song ‘Bol Mohabbat’, before we forget the serration with which he critiqued his society — caste, included? To stand apart from society is not an aesthetic choice, but a moral conviction. When rebellion becomes aspirational it loses some of its teeth. 

Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra in Chamkila
Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra in Chamkila

An Unbridled Innocence

‘Tu Kya Jaane’ is swung into yearning swoons by Yashika Sikka’s fragile voice, where every note feels like it is caught right before faltering; it is almost giddy listening to a voice that feels on the brink of collapse, yet always emerging steady. It is part of a very common sound ecology where singers self-consciously lather themselves in the lower octave, because of its connotations of quiet melancholy, such that even their launch into higher notes is negotiated through these lower notes; it always feels like a voice stretching, amenable to snap. 

The innocence of Sikka’s voice is seen both in the humming at the end — a whiff of Alia Bhatt from ‘Sooha Saha’— and the joy with which the song pivots, which Kamil brings out so effectively, no syllable is wasted, every syllable given the space to express itself fully, nothing overstaying its welcome, almost like a perfectly tailored pair of pants. 

“Sachchiyan mohabbattaan buland karke

Rakhna pitaari mein tu band karke

Rusna vi hasna vi naal tere

Sabse chhupake rakhna ang-sang maine”

(Keeping my headstrong, feet-firm love 

Hidden in a box

Our pleasures and pains

Those, too, I shall hide)

Kamil’s use of metre and rhyme is always playful, unorthodox. For example, he will rhyme words in the same sentence — qaboolun, bhoolun — or to have subsequent words just be off by a syllable — paap, paak — giving them a dazed power to lift a song beyond its meaning. 

A Rahman Staple

‘Baaja’ is, perhaps, the most encompassing song of this album, giving as it is the entire story of Chamkila, his allure, his death. Suryansh’s opening in the song is the most sublime turn of this album, moving across notes with a voice that is so tender it is almost as though you are seeing it disappear even as it appears; a last glimpse. This is a prologue to the song, where Kamil says that whether you perform your love through the protrate or prostate, it all leads to one thing.

Then, without warning, nor transition, the song takes a hairpin bend, in a percussive rush. This is Rahman’s go-to posture, uninterested in making a song cohere or making the transitions flow, often flashing between musical thoughts, the most egregious example almost unrepeatable in audacity being ‘Ajooba’ from Jeans

As ‘Baaja’ builds in energy, it becomes more playful in tone and in wordplay, too. See how Kamil evokes the bloodshed of the “sakht waqt” Khalistani movement in the Eighties. 

“Dahshaton ka daur chali tha-thoo tha-thoo 

Nit goli, nit rakht ki holi, aatank mein boli

De jan, mal, ghar-dwar...”

(The time of terror went tha-thoo tha-thoo

Every bullet, every Holi of blood spoke in terror,

Give your life, wealth, home, and house…)

Describing Chamkila’s claim to fame and infamy, “Jis wajah se chamka woh, uss wajah se tapka”, Kamil’s use of the word “tapka” is a comical reprieve that exists alongside the “Chamkila, Sexila, Tharkeela” reckoning. This is no hagiography.

The song lists out some of Chamkila’s songs — the most direct allusion to his works in this album. It includes a song where a brother-in-law asks if he can fan his sister-in-law, where a sister-in-law complains to her husband about his brother staring at her when she was showering in the afternoon white heat.

Chamkila as a Man and a Myth

‘Bol Mohabbat’ is the only song where Rahman lends his voice, and you recognise the anthem-like quality it has, almost as if through ‘Vande Mataram’ he created the voice of the anthem, a voice that is stuck in our heads as some sort of high octave template of faith. It exists as a flag waving, with Kailash Kher belting a voice not to harmonise with — much like Richa Sharma and Alka Yagnik’s voice never meeting — but to play against.

Arijit Singh and Jonita Gandhi in the final song of the album, ‘Vida Karo’ sing of a resolved desperation —“Meinu vida karo”, let me leave; like in an argument, where a lover says, “I am wrong”, not out of a gesture of regret or repentance, but merely to state one’s lacking patience, one’s ceding to the moral code, but not succumbing to it, remaining above it.  

“Tum sabhi saaf sahi

Hoon matmaila mein

Tum sabhi paak magar

Paap ka dariya mein.”

The hubris of ‘I am not ready for the world’ leaking, swiftly, into ‘The world is not ready for me’ is a genre of men singing of the world not being enough, best exemplified by Guru Dutt in ‘Dekhi zamane ki yaari…’. The pathos of the piano and violin produce an anatopism given the film and its setting, almost trying to lodge the film in another genre, another kind of film. By including Jonita Gandhi’s haunting vocals, touched by the afterlife, a reply to this plea, ‘Vida Karo’ attempts, meekly, to offer another perspective.

To turn cloudiness (matmaila) and sin (paap), into cinematic virtues, is something Ali has peddled, to romanticise struggle, pain, and inner violence as artistically valid, morally superior, and verbose; think of the cottage industry of speech that keep chirping about the lyric “Jo bhi main kehna chahoon, barbaad kare alfaaz mere” (What I want to express, speech destroys).

It is why his philosophical perspective can feel both alluring and limited, because it allows for itself to feel aspirational even as its indulgence can feel myopic and selfish. That he would be driven to Chamkila’s legend is unsurprising, even as this would be his first stab at a biopic, a genre which requires a rigour that is often missing in Ali’s writing, swept away as it is in his instinctive romance. 

There are, afterall, ways in which death elevates life itself. “The manner in which Chamkila’s life ended elevated him beyond the criticisms he faced during his lifetime for his double meaning songs,” Davinder Singh Rauke, a lyricist and singer noted. And who best to make a myth more mythical, a site of protest more palatable than Ali, Kamil, and Rahman and their gleaming cinema of normcore Sufism.

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