Mehsampur Review: An Outrageous, Shape-Shifting Film That Blends Fiction And Documentary

Kabir Chowdhry’s self-reflexive film is less about slain Punjabi folk singers Chamkila and Amarjot and more about rejecting conventions of documentary filmmaking
Mehsampur Review: An Outrageous, Shape-Shifting Film That Blends Fiction And Documentary

Mehsampur keeps you guessing what kind of film it is exactly. Like a documentary, it begins with a brief introduction of its (apparent) subject: "wildly popular" Punjabi folk singing duo Chamkila and Amarjot, known for their sexual innuendo-laden songs in the 80s, were gunned down by unknown assailants – a mystery that as yet remains unsolved. The next thing we see is the disclaimer that we get at the beginning of a fiction film, but with a twist: Any resemblance to actual events, to persons living or dead, is not unintentional. It sets you up for a film which is best viewed with no knowledge of what to expect.

When we first see Devrath Joshi, a documentary filmmaker who turns out to be a douchebag, he is on the phone with his girlfriend as he drives down the highway. He is heading for the village of Mehsampur, where he wants to make a documentary on the Chamkila-Amarjot murders. He isn't greeted like a guest there. The locals aren't friendly; they give him the impression that the filmmaker is treading dangerous territory, and that he should perhaps back off. He traces down Kesar Singh Tikki, who used to be Chamkila's manager. Devrath bribes him with a bottle of whiskey in order to persuade him to be a part of his film.

At this point, a viewer with a blank slate might mistake Devrath as the director of Mehsampur. It might comes across as a documentary in which the filmmaker is part of the story, in which when he is in front of the camera, he isn't behind it. Tikki shares anecdotes with Devrath. For instance, in '86 Chamkila had left for a tour of Canada without him, and had replaced him someone else; Tikki got drunk that night and threw stones at Chamkila's office and broke its front door. Devrath wants to do a reenactment – one of the most familiar devices of documentary film – of this scene. Now reenactments are generally done with professionally cast actors recreating a crime scene, or the events leading up to it, in a controlled set-up. But Devrath wants Tikki to do it himself; he makes the old, drunk man redo his three-decade old act in broad daylight. His amateur and half-hearted attempt, without any preparation, is darkly comical. That's when you start getting a sense of the film's temperament. Mehsampur is not just content with being a critique of the manipulations that are inherent in conventional documentary filmmaking. It is pissed off with it, and it wants to poke fun at it (in the reenactment of the crime scene, which comes at a later stage in the film, Devrath doubles as one of the assailants who shot Chamkila-Amarjot, and he uses a broomstick for a gun). Devrath is not the actual director, he is playing one.

It's important to note here that this kind of self-reflexive, meta-movie wasn't the original idea for Kabir Singh Chowdhry and Akshay Singh, the actual director and writer of Mehsampur respectively. Chowdhry was so intrigued by the murders, and the atmosphere of paranoia during the Khalistan movement that had gripped Punjab in the '80s, that he wanted to make a film on it. But when they set out to make the film, visiting Ludhiana for research, they got frustrated by the artifices of the documentary film form, and the cottage industry that has grown around the murders. So they ended up making a film on the whole exercise.

Chowdhry's prime target of mockery in Mehsampur seems to be Devrath (one of the cinematographers of the film, a fact that doubles the 'meta-ness'), who thinks of himself as an edgy, envelope-pushing filmmaker who has come to a hostile environment to make what he describes as a 'cinematic breakthrough.'

Chowdhry's prime target of mockery in Mehsampur seems to be Devrath (one of the cinematographers of the film, a fact that doubles the 'meta-ness'), who thinks of himself as an edgy, envelope-pushing filmmaker who has come to a hostile environment to make what he calls a "cinematic breakthrough." He gets too pushy while interviewing singer Surinder Sonia, a contemporary of Amarjot and Chamkila; at one point, he asks her if she has slept with Chamkila, and when she says no, he insists 'You must have.' Things take an unexpectedly violent turn when Devrath is chased by Surinder's grandsons – two young boys who are shown watching pop music videos when they are not practising judo – who smash his windscreen with their hockey sticks as he narrowly escapes.

The scene unfolds on a sleepy afternoon. And Chowdhry captures the idyll of the Punjab during the harvest season, when people have a lot of free time, with style and whimsy. The horns of the highway trucks make music. Someone reads lines from a poem on a moonlit night: The moon bakes the rotis, the stars serve them… It's heady, sensual.

Chowdhry uses every device of documentary film: reenactment, found footage, archival video, cinema verite, talking heads. But in its refusal to be either a docu-fiction or a mockumentary, in the strict sense, Mehsampur becomes unclassifiable. Devrath, the filmmaker protagonist, and Manpreet, the aspiring actress he meets, play fictional characters. But they interact with real people like Tikki, Surinder Sonia, and dholak player Lal Chand (an erstwhile Chamkila associate), who play slightly fictionalised versions of themselves. These fictionalised bits are insignificant. For instance, the bullet mark shown on Chand's thigh – he had narrowly escaped from the shootout – is actually on his arm.

Alterations like these don't make any real difference except that it gives Chowdhry the license to go all the way, freeing himself from the confines of documentary filmmaking. And all the way he goes. Mehsampur gets weirder and darker. There are shades of a noirish small-town murder mystery: Devrath, like a hard-drinking, messed-up loner, broods in the local bar; shots of the neon-lit seedy hotels. The final portions involving Devrath, Manpreet and Sandhu assume a nightmarish, surreal quality, when they go in search for a mythical dhol that's apparently stuck under the wheel of a giant combined harvester. 

The film changes gears without notice, and the tonal shifts are jerky (Devrath's handycam footage plays with a discernibly low audio-visual quality) and that is, kind of, the point of the film. You aren't supposed to get lost in the story. Instead the film is more concerned with calling our attention to the process of filmmaking itself. We are never to forget what we are watching is constructed.

The ending, involving Devrath, is shocking and grotesque, and could be perplexing for the viewer. I saw it as Chowdhry's version of cinematic justice that he as the creator of his universe exercises on one of his characters. He sees Devrath as a selfish, exploitative filmmaker who uses the local musicians and a struggling actress as he pleases in the name of making a path-breaking documentary. He was making a film that Chowdhry refused to make. Or did he?

Watch the trailer here:

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