Director: Rohit Jugraj
Writers: Rohit Jugraj, Geetanjali Mehlwal Chauhan, S Fakira, Jatinder Jaintipur
Cast: Paramveer Singh Cheema, Isha Talwar, Manoj Pahwa, Suvinder Vicky, Mohit Malik, Mukesh Chhabra, Prince Kanwaljit Singh, Akasa Singh
Streaming on: Sony LIV
A young musician sits next to the daughter of his guru. Apparently, there is sexual tension between them. He leans in to kiss her. But she stops him, saying she is saving herself for The One. Cut to: His guru – her stern father – shows the disciple his famous santoor (this is not an innuendo, yet). The older man tells his pupil that he has to earn the right to ‘touch’ such a pure instrument. The juxtaposition of moments continues. Back to the couple: He looks at her lips, her father’s words minging with his. Touch. Instrument. This is now an innuendo. And it’s only a cheap one, until the father uses the term “bajaana” – which translates to “playing” but is also Hindi slang for, er, copulation – after which I had to wash my ears for an hour. It’s made worse by the fact that guru-daddy is ‘played’ by Suvinder Vicky, whose superb work in Kohrra this year is almost undone by this horrible metaphor.
What’s remarkable about Chamak – a revenge story set against the backdrop of the Punjabi music industry – is that the film-making remains oblivious of these missteps. The first six episodes are streaming now, and it already feels like 5 too many. The series is shabbily written, directed, shot and performed. This becomes evident within the opening five minutes itself, when the protagonist yells “pyaar zeher hota hai, aur mera zeher tu hai! (“love is poisonous, and you’re my poison”) at an ex-girlfriend. He behaves like mid-2000s Emraan Hashmi character stuck in the rough cut of a Sandeep Reddy Vanga movie.
It’s also the kind of technically fragile series where even the foley effects go awry: A person walking on a concrete floor in sneakers sounds like he’s wearing blunt heels across a wooden surface. The tackiness is off the charts. Shots are out of focus, the dubbing lacks design, dialogue wrestles with a persistent score, and long-drawn scenes bear no indication of belonging to a larger narrative. The USP of Chamak is that it has an expansive 28-song soundtrack – spanning rap, folk, pop and classical by Punjabi artists past and present – but the storytelling fails to transcend its glorified music-video vibe.
The premise pretends to have a hook. A shallow riff on the headline-making murders of stars like Amar Singh Chamkila and Sidhu Moosewala, Chamak revolves around Kaala (Paramveer Singh Cheema), a small-time rapper and convict who flees Canada to hide in his ancestral land of Punjab. On his return, Kaala randomly discovers that he is actually the son of Tara Singh (Gippy Grewal), a legendary singer who was shot dead on stage with his wife two decades ago. Magically, Kaala is consumed by a desire for revenge. Mind you, moments ago, he had no idea who the slain superstar was. It’s what I call excel-sheet writing: Characters react because they must, not because they’re human. Anyhow, Kaala decides to investigate the past and track down his parents’ killers.
He fools an old journalist (who abruptly reveals that he lost his hand for asking too many dangerous questions) into helping him. Like someone who’s watched too many true-crime movies, Kaala makes a detective board – complete with photos of suspects, family trees, signage and a mugshot of himself that helpfully says ‘Me’. His three suspects read “terrorists,” “honour killing” and “friends”. Subtle notes scream: “Who KILLED my father?” (I could swear it’s also inked on his arm at one point.) He also romances an aspiring singer named Jazz (Isha Talwar), the only one who knows about his not-so-covert mission. Jazz is surplus to proceedings, but she must exist (as a concept) so that we know how tortured he can get. One scene features a rant that would make Animal (2023) proud. At a party she gatecrashes, Kaala explicitly describes sex with another woman, all the while pushing her into a corner. At this moment in Hindi cinema, toxic masculinity is a love language.
Now here’s where the mediocrity of Chamak outdoes itself. After ruling out the first two ‘suspects’ in a muddled sequence of non-events, Kaala settles on his father’s former business partners. The idea here is to give him a Baazigar-style revenge arc – where he infiltrates families, seduces daughters and makes his mark in a complicated music industry. But every move looks like it occurs in isolation of the next. His meteoric rise up the ladder (a piece of cake, really) is a different show altogether – the Kaala who goes from underground rapper to folk sensation shares no emotional continuity with the son in search of his roots. There is no connective tissue, no real understanding of the medium. The series is happy to deal in tired rags-to-riches tropes. For instance, Kaala is called by a producer who’s recording a Mika Singh track. In a scene that’s nearly half an episode long, he goes from serving water to becoming a backup vocalist to pissing off everyone to impressing Mika to recording his own song – all in one afternoon. Who can blame Jazz when she accuses him of making a mockery of an artist’s struggle? It’s like ambition is his freelance side gig, and revenge is his retainer.
The inability to juggle multiple tropes results in a show that is as distracted as its hero. The screenplay becomes a restless child that keeps running away into the wild the second its parents look away. Chamak insists on letting everyone have their say – because how can so much research be wasted? – and forgets about things like narrative rhythm. While Kaala is plotting, the series manufactures the time to reach all kinds of dead ends. Suddenly we see the dysfunctional family life of Tara Singh’s former friend and record company owner (Manoj Pahwa). Particularly his queer son (Mohit Malik), who tries to justify his own existence in Chamak by joking to his sister that he feels like a token LGBT character in a modern OTT series. He even has the most awkwardly staged flashbacks of his childhood.
A crass music producer (Mukesh Chhabra) goes soft in a scene that insists on revealing he had an abusive father. Not to mention an unhinged kidnapper (Prince Kanwaljit Singh), who empathizes with Kaala after nearly burying him alive. Every story wants a loose canon – a cold-blooded assassin, an unpredictable clown – but this fellow resembles a comic-book villain who’s been through too many therapy sessions. He’s the one who helps Kaala crack the fame code; he’s also a weird benefactor who guides him through the turmoil of a non-story.
The awful acting all around proves that a good director makes all the difference. Paramveer Singh Cheema was a scene-stealer as a morally upright cop in Tabbar (2021), but his rendition of Kaala is a massive misfire. I’d like to believe it’s not his fault, because the series itself is woefully out of tune with the fundamentals of the craft. The cameos, too, are so self-serving that it may as well have been a reality show. Early on, when Kaala gets into an impromptu rap duel with MC Square in the carpark of a Mohali nightclub, Kaala becomes incidental to the scene. The limelight stays on the real-world star – the polar opposite of how Gully Boy (2019) treated similar cameos. Ditto for the Mika moment, which makes sure that the singer has the final say before striding out of the studio.
In the end, Chamak forgets that Kaala had to keep a low profile in Punjab, lest he’s spotted on the internet by the Canadian sheriff whose son he assaulted. I’m sure this thread will conveniently emerge in the next half of the season, but the point is that it’s unfolding as if the two worlds are mutually exclusive. Just like the logline of Chamak and its execution seem to be mutually exclusive. It could be worse, I suppose. Like, say, an old singer’s advice doubling up as innuendo for his daughter’s sex life.