Now Reading
Imtiaz Ali’s ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’ Fails to Capture Caste Realities and Complex Legacy of the Dalit Singer

Imtiaz Ali’s ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’ Fails to Capture Caste Realities and Complex Legacy of the Dalit Singer

  • Despite commendable efforts in visual storytelling through outstanding 2D animations, innovative split screen technique, A.R. Rahman's enriching music and brilliant acting, the film lacks depth and nuance.

Imtiaz Ali’s ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’ tries to bring the story of the iconic Punjabi singer to the screen, but unfortunately falls short in its exploration of the complex caste and societal issues that shaped Chamkila’s life and legacy. Imtiaz continuously displays the statement “his songs were Ashleel or obscene” on screen. It predisposes the audience against Chamkila and hinders their ability to watch the movie objectively. This portrayal confines Chamkila to a box and steers the audience towards the belief that he was targeted because of his ‘obscene’ songs.

Chamkila was more than just his “Ashleel” lyrics. He possessed a powerful, raw, and gritty voice, excelled as a skilled tumbi player, and also learned to play the harmonium and dholak. Chamkila was a master of stage performance, captivating audiences with his charm. He composed many of his songs himself, and his collaboration with Amarjot further enhanced his popularity. At the peak of his fame, Chamkila was even dubbed the ā€˜Elvis Presley of Punjab.’

Chamkila, originally named Dhani Ram, was born on July 1, 1960, to Kartar Kaur and Hari Singh Sandila in a financially disadvantaged Dalit family in the village of Dugri, now a suburb of Ludhiana. At just 16, he joined local drama groups, where he refined his performing skills. At the age of 18, he found work at a cloth mill, where he would scribble songs during breaks. Already married to Gurmail Kaur, he had four children, but only two managed to survive. Chamkila, with his trademark tumbi (an ektara-like one-stringed instrument), captured the socio-cultural realities of villages in Punjab and also traveled to Canada, Dubai, the U.S., and Bahrain for shows.Ā 

The film touches upon Chamkila’s Dalit identity but fails to fully integrate this critical aspect into the broader narrative. While acknowledging the challenges Chamkila faced due to his songs, the movie superficially touches on his caste and just never mentions any detail about the caste of other characters, not even of Chamkila’s talented partner Amarjot. 

Amarjot kaur, his second wife and partner on Akharas was a Jat. Amarjot’s family was not happy with her because she was singing songs with Chamkila. Their marriage did not receive approval from Amarjot’s parents and relatives, adding complexity to the real story.

“Har kisi ki sahi-galat sochne ki aukaat nahi hoti,” Chamkila tells a reporter in one scene. It means “Not everyone has the privilege to think about right and wrong.” Some people don’t have a choice like others. However, this dialogue in the movie was intended to represent the working class and not Chamkila’s caste. In Indian society, individuals from oppressed caste like ā€˜Chamar’ often lack the resources and networks, which denies them the privilege to ponder about the moralities of society. Chamkila was unfiltered, and assertive and he utilized his talent to earn recognition and affection that was frequently withheld due to his caste. Unfortunately, Imtiaz Ali’s film does not delve into this dimension of Chamkila’s narrative with the necessary care and attention.

Amar Singh Chamkila with his first wife Gurmail Kaur and their son. (Instagram/@jaimanchamkila )

At the 10-minute mark of the movie, we witness a scene where Chamkila’s friends arrive to collect his body, and nearby police officers are heard discussing. They remark that this doesn’t seem like the work of real “kharkus” (Khalistani militants) because they would have proudly declared responsibility for killing him. However, upon watching the entire movie, it becomes apparent that the film’s depiction of Chamkila’s tragic death leans towards attributing it to his choice of songs and religious fundamentalism in Punjab during that period. This portrayal overlooks the possibility of it being an honor killing, despite the complexities of Chamkila and Amarjot’s inter-caste relationship.

Some critics take issue with Chamkila’s topics, such as extra-marital relationships, alcohol, hypersexuality and drug use. However, I found very few instances of misogyny or sexism in his music.

When Chamkila utilized the existing patriarchal society to build his reputation, he became a target of scrutiny. Being a ‘Chamar’ ( lower caste), he faced barriers in leveraging the system designed to benefit specific castes. In India, during Chamkila’s time and even today, many singers from upper castes perform lecherous and obscene songs. However, most of them leverage their caste networks and collaborate with lyricists who use clever vocabulary and catchy music to mask the obscene content. Chamkila, being a ‘Chamar,’ couldn’t disguise his lyrics with the same finesse as others. He wrote them himself, using his own vocabulary to express what he saw and heard around him. This made him a target for those uneasy with his growing fame and rebellious attitude. Also, I donā€™t agree with the narrative that the majority of his songs were obscene.

Some critics also take issue with Chamkila’s topics, such as extra-marital relationships, alcohol, hypersexuality, and drug use. However, I found very few instances of misogyny or sexism in his music. It’s important to acknowledge the diverse range of Chamkila’s songs and understand the working-class language before making judgments about him. I’ve discovered that many of his songs are actually satirical in nature. Unfortunately, many people focus solely on his provocative and unfiltered rural, working-class language, which lacks refinement, rather than engaging with the substance of his message. Upon closer analysis of the lyrics, you’ll notice that Chamkila often represents the male perspective while Amarjot represents the female perspective in their songs, and many of them have social messages.

There is a beautiful song ā€˜Kar yaad Kurheā€™ that portrays heartbreak stemming from arranged marriages. There is another song called ‘Kan Kar Gal Sun Makhna’ that embodies pure romance. In many of his songs often branded as depicting extra-marital affairs, you’ll discover they are actually songs against arranged marriages and how they lead to genuine lovers being separated, eventually resulting in extra-marital relationships. Examples include ā€˜Koi Le Chaleya Muklaveā€™ and ā€˜Din Aa Gaye Viah De Nerhe.ā€™ In many upper-caste communities, arranged marriages (essentially coerced same-caste marriages) are more socially acceptable than songs depicting extramarital affairs resulting from such marriages, because these songs directly challenge the institution of arranged marriage.Ā 

See Also

Another song ‘Khunde Noon Tel la ka Rakheya’ vividly depicts a relationship which feels like an intercaste relationship where the girl’s parents discover her love for a boy, leading to the mother physically assaulting her daughter and the father preparing to beat the boy with an oiled stick. There’s also the song “Pat Doon Chugath Ni,” often deemed obscene, but upon closer examination of Amarjot’s verses, it reveals a revolutionary satire targeting older men who fabricate stories about their youth to boast about themselves and objectify women. Adding to that Chamkila also has some religious songs towards the end of his career.

The film’s portrayal of the threatening letters received by Chamkila lacks important information, as the director omits crucial details such as the names of the groups behind the threats and details about their caste location, diminishing the contextual understanding of the artist’s predicament. Despite continuous threats, Chamkila never received police protection. In fact, there is a scene from the movie where the police warn Chamkila against performing religious songs, implying that such songs align him with the militants. The police threaten that if he sings such songs again, he will be killed.Ā  Chamkila responds by pointing out the irony, “They also threatened to finish me off, and now you’re saying the same thing.” This highlights Chamkila’s vulnerable position, with no viable means of escape or refuge. On March 8, 1988, motorcycle-mounted assailants armed with AK47s killed Amarjot and Chamkila. To this day, their killers remain unidentified, and the case remains unsolved.Ā It has been 35 years since his death, and no one has been arrested for the killings.Ā 

Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti delivered top-notch performances, capturing the essence of Chamkila and Amarjot with remarkable resemblance and authentic body language. But the one thing they were missing was the authentic charm of the real couple, which I suppose was impossible for any actor to fully embody. The last song ‘Vida karo’ from the movie was an absolute masterpiece visually and lyrically. Diljit’s singing prowess was another standout feature of the movie. Although there were many inaccuracies in the English subtitles, such as translating “kamar” (waist) as “booty” in one instance, these errors did not diminish the overall viewing experience. Amarjot’s character, integral to Chamkila’s musical journey was underdeveloped in the film. This role was a career-defining opportunity for Parineeti, but the director missed the chance to highlight the complexities of the inter-caste relationship, ultimately depriving Parineeti of that significant role. Despite this, Parineeti did justice to whatever the script provided for her character.

Despite commendable efforts in visual storytelling through outstanding 2D animations, innovative split-screen technique, A.R. Rahman’s enriching music and brilliant acting, ā€œAmar Singh Chamkilaā€ ultimately lacks the depth and nuance required to do justice to its compelling subject matter. In conclusion, the film could have been a classic, but it’s marred by a superficial treatment of the caste and complex artistic brilliance of Chamkila.

Lokesh Bag is a writer, movie critic, and sketch artist. He has a graduate degree in Agricultural Entomology. An Ambedkarite, Bag has been creating meaningful conversations about caste, gender, and social issues. He has been published in The Quint and he often writes on various topics in tweet-chunks on Twitter/X for his fans. He believes in working towards a better tomorrow, one word at a time.

What's Your Reaction?
In Love
Not Sure
View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Ā© 2020 American Kahani LLC. All rights reserved.

The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies ofĀ American Kahani.
Scroll To Top