Amar Singh Chamkila Review: Imtiaz Ali Imagines His Way Back to Form

The biopic stars Diljit Dosanjh as the iconic and wildly popular Punjabi pop star. It is available on Netflix.
Amar Singh Chamkila Review: Imtiaz Ali Imagines His Way Back to Form

Director: Imtiaz Ali

Writers: Sajid Ali, Imtiaz Ali

Cast: Diljit Dosanjh, Parineeti Chopra, Anjum Batra, Apinderdeep Singh, Anuraag Arora, Udaybir Sandhu

Duration: 146 minutes

Streaming on: Netflix

Most Indian biopics are shackled by their relationship with history. Reverence becomes the default lens; stories are chosen to educate, not excavate. There is no room for opinion, and film-making is reduced to a medium of adulatory bullet points. In that sense, Amar Singh Chamkila is a rare cocktail of legend and legacy. The life of the slain Punjabi musician – his star-crossed rise in the 1980s; his alliances and duets; his ambitions and apprehensions – is defined by the very language of opinion. His popularity exposes the dualities of grassroots fame – a blinding mirror of a state as well as its cracked glass ceiling. He was at once loved and hated, criticised and glorified, silenced and quoted, killed and immortalised. So it’s fitting that the biopic about him is inventive, freewheeling and curious – constantly mining the connective tissue between not just art and artist, but also between the worlds that make and break them. After all, the “Elvis of Punjab” didn’t fly too close to the sun; he became the sun. 

To its credit, the film sings in the past but speaks to the present. Chamkila’s career – his rash compositions; snapshots of his surroundings disguised as crude exaltations; high-pitched vocals and low-pitched reflections; his tumbi and his tenacity – manages to offend all fractions of society. It reveals the hypocrisy of a people who thrive on private escapism and public virtue. Unlike the rest, he (Diljit Dosanjh) creates from what he’s seen – misogyny, abuse, violence, adultery, addiction – rather than what he aspires to see. His work remains a function of observation, not romanticisation; there’s no filter between head and heart. As a result, his detractors view him as more of a blunt reporter than a cheap musician. He is threatened by both establishment and anti-establishment elements: By godmen and militants, cops and rivals, lovers and loafers. There is no winning, not even when he caves under pressure and changes his image from provocateur to devotional singer. Either the classes have a problem or the masses. 

A still from Chamkila
A still from Chamkila

Best Enjoyed as an Imtiaz Ali Movie

The conflict is familiar: The politics of art is censored by the religions of intolerance. Across the film, Chamkila is subjected to scrutiny – he is torn between appeasing and being, disappointing and pleasing, hearing and listening. A telling scene features a female journalist slamming the objectification of women in his songs. His reply – that people like him are too busy surviving to think about right and wrong – is almost aimed at the internet age. In another era, he is a self-aware director explaining the success of his massy movies. The moment also encapsulates the tragedy of Chamkila. To paraphrase the Rumi quote that closes Rockstar (2011): Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field, he meets himself there. It’s no coincidence that a magic-hour glow – where it looks like Chamkila is at peace, freed from the figments of someone’s imagination – marks the two times he’s humming new tunes and rehearsing on a street. The light falls on his face as if he’s in that field, beyond social labels and record labels, writing his destiny rather than his music.

Which brings me to the natural identity of Amar Singh Chamkila. As perceptive a biographical drama as it is, the film is better enjoyed as an Imtiaz Ali movie. It takes the director’s long-standing fascination with fiction – the recurring trope of characters as narrators; the multimedia blend of truth and mythology – and distills it into a moving postmortem of memory. At its core, Chamkila is a real-world manifestation of Rockstar (2011) and Tamasha (2015), two of the director’s most divisive quasi-biopics. Like Rockstar, it’s about an artist whose dissent is not a conscious statement, but a consequence of his desires. There are physical shades of the 2011 film: Protest anthem “Sadda Haq” inspires Mohit Chauhan’s “Ishq Mitaye” (“Love is a destroyer”), a song that scores Chamkila’s stage-show montage during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The track even opens with the guest appearance of Kumud Mishra – the man behind Rockstar’s manager Khatana Bhai – as a label owner who pushes Chamkila to entertain Punjab in a time of strife and bloodshed. When he says “business,” Chamkila hears “messiah”. Aarti Bajaj’s editing again captures the musicality of living; it splices and splits frames, routines and archival footage in a tongue that casts time as a finite entity. 

A still from Chamkila
A still from Chamkila

The Complexities of Chamkila

Fuelled by the hindsight of fact, Amar Singh Chamkila updates the template. His desires here are different. Chamkila’s career revolves around pandering to the masses; he prides in knowing what the people need to hear. He is not driven by any lofty heartbreak or love. Diljit Dosanjh’s Chamkila – his mannerisms, his eyes, his reactions to wife Amarjot Kaur (a studied Parineeti Chopra) – bears an uncanny resemblance to Ranbir Kapoor. But Dosanjh transcends the likeness and attaches the character’s creative servility to his caste identity. The subtext shines through: Chamkila is born Dhani Ram, a Sikh Chamar, which is why his music becomes a device to be seen and heard. Entertaining the crowds and making them dance is a way of normalizing his agency in a setting that ‘nurtured’ his talent. It’s his way of obeying people, without the burden of prejudice. 

Even when Chamkila gets disillusioned by threats from all sides, his default emotion is deference. He tells his wife that they cannot abuse or question the world they owe everything to. In his eyes, it’s a holy bond. One of Chamkila’s final sequences shows him pretending to get mad at a helper who serves him a cold roti; “Do you know who I am?” he yells, before breaking into a smile. But you can tell that he’s only half-joking: He’s actually convincing himself of his own credentials. His optimism, which soon morphs into delusion, is centered on this belief: How can a story be dismantled by its faithful readers? Like Tamasha, then, Amar Singh Chamkila becomes a story about storytelling. It’s not just the title credits song, “Baaja”, which has the twofold tempo of “Chali Kahani”. It’s also the design of the film. It goes one step ahead – and marries the subjectivity of posthumous shock with the objectivity of dry remembrance. 

The murder of Chamkila and Amarjot in 1988 unfolds in the opening scene. His story is narrated in the immediate aftermath by faces from separate stages of his life, but more notably, listeners from separate walks of life. It is begun by his former friend and ex-manager Tikki (a terrific Anjum Batra) at a shady bar: Tikki himself has a prominent role in these portions, echoing the multiple cries of “I made Chamkila!” across the film. If a building falls, no architect claims credit for its construction. But if a human falls, everyone becomes his architect. The story is then continued by Chamkila’s bereaved colleagues – including income-tax agent and supporter Swarn Sivia – in front of a cynical police officer (Anuraag Arora). As they wait for the families to arrive, these men exist in the pause between night and day, but also darkness and broad daylight. The nostalgia is so raw that their memory absolves Chamkila of his sins: It postdates the presence of his first wife, his drinking and smoking, his deceptions. It paints his man-childness as an extension of the innocent kid who asked his mother what “khada (erect)” means. 

Diljit Dosanjh in Chamkila
Diljit Dosanjh in Chamkila

More Man than Myth

The staging and time-frame say a lot. While the bodies lay inside Chamkila’s bungalow, the senior cop is all ears in the yard, his apathy for the man who “corrupted Punjab” slowly dissolving into empathy. He reacts like Ved in Tamasha does, when the roadside storyteller (Piyush Mishra) keeps mixing up fables. Cutaways of the mutilated faces during the flashback are hard to digest, but they keep tethering the fiction to an inescapable reality. This happens over the course of one night – the period between the transience of Chamkila’s life and eternity of his loss. It’s the calm between two storms, when he is still more man than myth; more flesh than blood. What this framework also does is give context to composer A.R. Rahman and lyricist Irshad Kamil’s intuitive soundtrack. Chamkila never made music for himself, so the film makes music for him. He was so consumed by serving others that the album serves him.  

Each of the six songs – from the boisterous beginnings of “Baaja” to the mournful endings of “Vidaa Karo” – do what he could never afford to do: Tell his own story. It’s as if they urge everyone influenced by his art – friends, foes, women secretly enjoying his vulgar verses, inspectors and constables, truck drivers (including the ones in Ali’s Highway) and farmers – to hold themselves accountable, face the camera and sing for him. It also plays out like the sort of personal record that Chamkila might have written had he suffered and lived longer. The kind that he might have composed in his backyard, during magic hour, once the tamasha (spectacle) of his rockstar days are behind him. That is the essence of Amar Singh Chamkila. It reclaims the words from the headline. And it grieves the death of not a person, but a place and time; it laments for a world that watched and wondered. The film isn’t a whodunit. It is a ghost story – and it haunts a culture that continues to shoot the messenger. 

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