‘Chamkila’ review: This may be the best music biopic made in India

Writer-director Imtiaz Ali’s Chamkila (one who glitters), starring Diljit Dosanjh as the real-life Punjabi folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila, is inspired and fabulous in all sorts of ways. At the centre of this biopic is one of India’s finest actors and singers, Diljit Dosanjh.

As Chamkila, who rose to fame on titillating, ribald lyrics and exceptional singing talent in the late 70s and early 80s and was gunned down at the age of 27 during the peak of militancy, Dosanjh doesn’t inhabit or play a character here. He submerges himself so beautifully and completely in Chamkila that there are moments in the film when you wonder if it really is Dosanjh on screen. Watching Dosanjh get lost in Chamkila’s character to bring him alive is like being treated to a master class in acting.

All the songs in the film, it informs us, have been performed live by Diljit Dosanjh, Parineeti Chopra and others.

Dosanjh is a hugely popular singer and stage performer. So that part of the role would have come naturally to him. But it’s the way in which he  engages his whole body to express Chamkila’s high-pitched singing style — tensing, pulling, making a physical effort to draw notes from inside — that makes the stage performances in the film stand out.

Imtiaz Ali is a very good director, but he has been limited in the stories he picks up — mostly adorable, young romances that sour, leaving scars and tortured souls who seek happiness but also throttle it when they find it. His obsession with pretty college-going girls in salwar suits had begun to bore me.

After Jab We Met and Tamasha, Chamkila may be Imtiaz Ali’s best and cinematically most audacious film. 

Ali, who has written the film’s script with his brother, frames Chamkila’s story in a social and political context to show the cost that many have had to pay simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

At a time when we seem to have forgotten men and women who were shot for having views that irritated religious and political groups — Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare, Gauri Lankesh — Chamkila reminds us of the fragility of freedoms and lives without waving the flag of human rights or scoffing at groups that profess to uphold honourable values but don’t flinch at using guns and carrying out murders.

Chamkila is Imtiaz Ali’s most political film to date. It may well also be the best music biopic made in India.

Chamkila opens with Amar Singh, a chit of a school-going boy from a Dalit family. Curious and gifted, he watches and soaks in all that is happening around him. Mostly it’s sex. 

There is talk of sex, the forbidden and incestuous kind. There are men and women obsessed with sex in his family and neighbourhood. He encounters them in bathrooms, in the kitchen, and even spots them on the terrace.  

He puts down what he hears and sees in verse from, using the words, accusations and expressions he has heard from adults around him. This dirty stuff gets him canned at school, but he doesn’t stop writing, and draws emotional sustenance from it as he grows up and has to work at a soulless job in a garment factory when he’d rather be singing.

His dreams keep him restless, and after some attempts he becomes an apprentice and lyricist to a famous folk singer, Jitender Jinda (after real-life singer Surinder Shinda).

A fortuitous stage performance one day, where he strums the tumbi — a single-string plucking instrument — because Jinda is running late, changes the course of his life. 

Chamkila collaborates with female singers, first Sonia and then Amarjot (Parineeti Chopra), whom he later marries. Together they sing about lust, affairs, booze and drugs. Their songs are massive hits, bookings for performances at weddings and festivals pour in, bringing money and fame. They are also invited to the Gulf and to Canada to perform.

Running parallel to the story of fans who can’t stop listening to Chamkila’s naughty songs and of rising record sales is the story of jealous singers who can’t stand his success and plot to bring him down. There are also trigger-happy militants and daunting religious heads who begin to view his songs as a corrupting influence that must be stopped. 

Somewhere in the middle, the film dips for a bit. It meanders here and there, spending too much time on Amarjot and Chamkila’s marriage, and families and to introduce new characters. 

One particular scene, where a journalist interviews him, feels especially artificial. It strikes a jarring note in the film which otherwise feels so real and authentic. There are better ways of showing a clash between the woke, urbane, feminist world and a folk singer it accuses of objectifying women.

The film recovers from this and proceeds on a different note.

As Chamkila becomes more famous, he also becomes an easy target.

Though his popularity amongst young girls and boys, men in rural Punjab continues to rise, he is shunned by respectable people and radio stations.

But in the privacy of their hostel rooms, women put cassettes in tape recorders and dance to his songs because they express their desires as well. In Chamkila’s lyrical imagination, women are equal participants in the game of tease and sex.

There are warnings and death threats. At packed events, where Chamkila tries to avoid singing these songs, he is repeatedly heckled and told to sing the songs he is famous for. 

A victim of his own success, he submits to his fate with the exhaustion of someone caught between fans who demand lewd, salacious songs, but the only target of rage against these songs is him.  

Diljit Dosanjh’s eyes are lively pools of expression and the range of things he can convey just with his eyes is exceptional. As a singer, he is of course in his element here — confident and engrossed. But he carries Chamkila’s fame with the confused smile of someone who can’t quite believe what is happening.

And later, when threats to his music, livelihood and life become routine, Dosanjh doesn’t react with foot-stomping rage. He lets a shadowy gloominess engulf him. And as it slowly darkens every pore of his body and soul, he acquires a wistful expression and demeanour. 

His face forgets to smile, his body begins to wilt and his gaze grows distant, as if what’s happening around him is temporal and pointless because he can see the big thing that’s coming. 

Chopra, who plays Amarjot, Chamkila’s second wife and singing partner, is assured, credible and a calming, grounding foil to his crackling personality.

Imtiaz Ali is a master at creating affecting, tender moments of blushing, budding romance. He does that very well here. More than Dosanjh, Chopra carries that first tingling of love which makes her cheeks flush and body twirl. 

Chamkila is strongest when it is in lyrical mode and is telling the story of the folk singer through his songs and performances.  

Imtiaz Ali celebrates Chamkila’s music and life by adding an extra zing to it. Words and phrases dance on the screen when Chamkila sings. Graphic novel-style animation interjects to break the monotony, and makes scenes throb with psychedelic energy.

The film has a very talented ensemble of cast and crew, including Irshad Kamil who has written the lyrics, and AR Rahman, who has composed the music. It is melodious when it needs to be, and energising when required. Long after the film is over, Rahman’s beats will continue to play in your head.   

Imtiaz Ali creates several authentic, overlapping worlds in Chamkila with a sharp but light touch.  

Shot on location in Punjab, there isn’t a single false note in the film’s setting, mood, except for that one interview scene. In the film’s early morning scenes, you can feel the chill amidst the fog, and the segregation of men and women at functions and events is very nicely shown. 

In the beginning, when Chamkila is a young boy, incestuous encounters are quite normal and make their way to folk songs that women sing in the safety of each other’s company.

When Chamkila grows up, we are in the world of Punjabi folk singers who go from one singing gig to another, hoping to eventually migrate to Canada. This lucrative but unpredictable and competitive world, where grown men get insecure quickly, where slights are imagined and avenged, feels so Punjabi and real. 

All of this is set against the backdrop of rising militancy in Punjab. Its continuous presence and threat are often conveyed in the film simply through the nozzle of an AK-47 that sticks out from behind the shoulders of men covered in heavy shawls. It’s menacing and it’s great filmmaking. 

I watched Chamkila in Punjabi and though I understand the language, I found it difficult to follow. 

The film is available in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi.

Movie: Chamkila

Cast: Diljit Dosanjh, Parineeti Chopra 

Direction: Imtiaz Ali

Rating: 3.5/5

Streaming on Netflix