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Why Punjabi singing star Amar Singh Chamkila’s life story lends itself well to a biopic

Imtiaz Ali’s film Amar Singh Chamkila, starring Diljit Dosanjh in the title role and Parineeti Chopra as his wife, is streaming on Netflix

Bobby Sing Calcutta Published 16.04.24, 04:05 PM
Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra in the Netflix film Amar Singh Chamkila.

Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra in the Netflix film Amar Singh Chamkila.

The moment I heard about a docudrama being planned on the life of Amar Singh Chamkila a few years back, I was clear about the intentions of its makers. Amar Singh Chamkila’s short, eventful life certainly had all the elements of a musical crime thriller garnished with dollops of mystery — perfect for a mainstream biopic.

However, is the protagonist a legend really deserving of a biopic? There are a number of legends in the history of Punjabi music waiting to be explored, on whom official biopics can be made, names many millennials will not have even heard of. Their vast contributions to the legacy of Punjabi music are second to none. However, their lives might be too simple to be adapted for a film. Chamkila’s in contrast is a life made for the movies.

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The myths and the facts

Amar Singh Chamkila was no doubt one of the biggest stars of his time (the 1980s), outselling everyone else and setting new records in terms of sales of cassettes and vinyls. He was in demand for local live shows (akhadas) throughout the year. As a creator, he had an exceptional talent for writing and composing songs for himself and other artists, and also played the tumbi brilliantly. Yet, he was a simple, down-to-earth person who was never seen in flashy clothes or involved in any glamorous show-off in his public performances. This offers a contrast that becomes interesting for a visual medium.

At the same time, Chamkila was not the only star of those times. That is as much an exaggeration as calling him the ‘Elvis of Punjab’, a tag given by a renowned artist/fan. In the years he made his presence felt, Punjabi music already had famous stars, stalwarts performing in India and abroad, among his seniors and contemporaries. There is a long list of both established and emerging talents who were in their prime around the same time that Chamkila gained immense popularity in Punjab.

To give you an idea, a young singer, Gurdas Mann, achieved overnight fame after his debut appearance in a Doordarshan programme in 1980. Within just three years, his song was part of a Punjabi feature film, and he also appeared in a cameo. We also had the legendary Surinder Kaur, Prakash Kaur, Asa Singh Mastana, Kuldeep Manak, Surinder Shinda, Didar Sandhu, Mohd Siddique, K. Deep & Jagmohan Kaur, Gurmeet Bawa, Yamla Jatt and many more as talented and as popular.

Above all, most of Chamkila’s albums had music by the respected veteran Charanjit Ahuja. Anyone who understands music production will know the humongous contribution a music director makes to a singing star’s career and his best-selling albums. But ever since Imtiaz Ali’s biopic has been in the news, I have not heard or seen even a single person (including the makers) mentioning Charanjit Ahuja in their writing or videos.

Similarly, Chamkila also sang a few songs (devotional) written by other lyricists, along with the ones he penned, but those writers remain overshadowed by the noise surrounding his name and fame.

Why Chamkila?

A biopic of Chamkila is viable for a big-screen adaptation because both his origin and his end are unusual, unique and engaging, with enough material for a film script. Chamkila’s life — his real name is Dhani Ram — is the story of a Dalit rising from the dust, first assisting, and then competing with all the upper-caste singers of that era. It is the story of a rare struggle and victory that makes it a perfect underdog narrative for a big-screen adaptation.

Apart from the story of an underprivileged person making it to the top, there are elements of fun and romance in his songs (as duets with Amarjot Kaur) imbued with double entendre, which give them their mass appeal. Again, it isn’t that Chamkila and Amarjot Kaur were the only artists singing double-meaning song.

Double entendre is a genre in itself in Punjabi music and it was at its peak in the 1980s. So, you will find such songs in his contemporaries’ albums too, for instance, K. Deep and Jagmohan Kaur. No doubt, Chamkila exploited the genre the most, taking it to another level. One must remember that the 1980s prominently featured double-meaning dialogues in Hindi films too, rendered by top stars of the era. In addition, these were also the years Dada Kondke released all his Hindi films, titles of which left nothing to the imagination.

This was one of the key reasons why their shows were in massive demand at weddings and other community functions, as people (particularly males) used to have great fun listening to their songs together. Plus, their comparatively affordable rates in the initial years were also responsible for their growing demand in Punjab.

Add to this a subplot involving Punjab’s extremist movement of the 1980s. Different theories exist about Chamkila’s links with groups revolting against the establishment during the 1980s, and this certainly serves for a major twist in the second half of the film’s script. The most appealing part of Chamkila’s life, much more than his talent or success, is his untimely murder by unknown people. This one aspect of his life has blown everything about him out of proportion, resulting in multiple films (one docudrama and two Punjabi films). The murder has remained unsolved and that makes room for mystery and suspense. Chamkila’s unconventional and tragic end eventually converts a musical life into an open-ended thriller, providing another edge to the story. There are different conclusions his family, friends and locals have arrived at about his death.

If truth be told, had there been no killing involved, you probably would not be reading or watching so much about him. That differentiates Amar Singh Chamkila from his contemporaries.

There is a big difference between a hit star, known for his incomparable sales/shows, and a legend known for his mastery of the art and contribution to the world of music or art. A legend might not be a star, and every hit star might not necessarily be a legend. Chamkila was definitely a big star, with a life with enough twists and turns to merit multiple films. What he is not is a legend. There are bigger names in Punjabi music whose work needs documenting. Unfortunately, their lives probably do not lend themselves to the drama required for a film.

(Bobby Sing is a creative-music consultant and a writer on cinema. He is the author of the ‘Did You Know’ series of books on the classics of Hindi cinema)

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