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A fabulous comeback by Imtiaz Ali: Chamkila

 Dr Ramandeep Mahal reviews 'Chamkila'

I had heard about Amar Singh Chamkila only from my senior family members, but I wasn’t aware of his raunchy lyrics. Nor was I aware of the story of his life. Browsing through my Facebook posts, I happened to come across a teaser of the movie. The short, crisp teaser was arresting, and I knew in my heart that this movie would grab eyeballs. Imtiaz Ali’s direction would certainly lift the film from a plebian level, even though it is his first attempt at a biopic.

People of non-Punjabi community are not familiar with Dhani Ram aka Amar Singh Chamkila, a Punjabi singer whose risqué lyrics made him the most loved and hated singer of all times. He, in fact, belongs to a group known as 27 Club that comprises of artists such as Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendricks and Amy Winehouse. It’s an urban myth that the artists comprising this group died at the very young age of twenty- seven. There are plenty of anecdotes and myths surrounding these famous people.

Chamkila (Diljit Dosanjh) was a self-made Dalit artist who with great difficulty clawed his way out of abject poverty. The movie starts with violence and music both. The song Baaja loosely depicts his life as well as death. Through the film we often get to hear the word ‘Ashleel’ which means obscene. For Chamkila this word was actually ‘survival’. There are lyrics such as ‘ganda tha banda, social derinda tha’ (he was dirty, a social evil) that catch one’s eye. Thanks to subtitles by editor Gurmangeet Kaur Baath, the non-Punjabi community is also able to apprehend the real meaning of the songs. Imtiaz Ali crafts a sensitive, cinematic story that tells the audience who the real Chamkila and his second wife Amarjot Kaur (played by Parineeti Chopra) were.

Mohit Chauhan too enters the frame in the guise of a folk singer in the introductory song Baaja. Chamkila. According to reviewer Sucharita Tyagi, the film seamlessly melds together three narratives. The first one consists of anecdotes and trivia based on hearsay. The second and the third narrative run parallel to the original. One narrative is the music of Amar Singh Chamkila that Parineeti Chopra and Diljit Dosanjh have created with their own voice and the other one is Irshad Kamil and A.R Rehman’s soundtrack that is Imtiaz Ali’s commentary on Chamkila’s life (the song Baaja of course!). There is another song Naram Kaalja where the audience eventually moves away from Chamkila and Amarjot to a random disconnected ladies sangeet song where women of all ages highlight their hidden desires.

What I didn’t appreciate was the animated part of the movie. The animation creates a caricature that detracts from the sensitivity and tragedy of Chamkila’s life. It was certainly not needed as it does not enhance either the narrative or the musical proclivity of the protagonist or the tragic thread of the story and in fact interferes with the authenticity and credibility of the character. The 1984 riots and its fall out in the form of increased terrorism is the canvas against which the life and death of Chamikla is enacted. Chamkila receives death threats from the upholders of morality on account of his raunchy lyrics. He tries to toe the moral lines drawn but soon realises that he must remain true to himself and true to his listeners who for reasons best known to them, love Chamika for his bawdy lyrics and his vibrant, foot-tapping music. The result is a foregone conclusion. One morning as Chamkila and his wife alight from their car at a venue where they are performing, and they are mercilessly shot dead.

Ali’s masterstroke is casting Diljit as Chamkila. Diljit’s acting prowess lifts this film, making it a beautiful tribute to a singer who lived life on his own terms.  His expressions are to be noted in one scene when he is questioned by a hostile reporter about his obscene songs. And Chamkila replies ‘har kisi ki sahi aur galat sochne ki aukaad nahi hoti’ (Not everyone has the ability to sift through what is right and wrong). Now this is a man who actually understands the reality of the world.  Kumud Mishra emerges in a cameo to tell us that when a society is in crisis, people always turn to entertainment for survival and succor. Anurag Arora as the DSP has given a powerful performance. What I actually liked was how Amitabh Bacchan hovers throughout the film, with his larger-than-life posters in the background. 

Chamkila actually receives his name by accident. A panicked announcer at a venue pushes him on stage to replace a celebrated Punjabi singer who has not been able to reach the venue in time for a performance to appease a restive audience. So ‘Sandila’ (name Of Amar Singh’s village) becomes ‘Chamkila’. His objection is over-ruled by a musician who dismissively tells him ‘kal kon tera naam yaad rakhega?’ (Who will remember your name tomorrow?) However, after so many years Chamkila’s music as well as name is still alive. The movie also brings to mind the famous Punjabi singer, Sidhu Moosewala, (as he was shot in broad daylight too).


You can catch Chamkila on Netflix only. The makers of the film probably thought (perhaps rightly so) that the film would appeal to and be understood only by Punjabis. But I wish the film at been released in theatres too. I would rate this movie 8.5 out of 10 based on Imtiaz Ali’s choice of Diljit as Chamkila and his depiction of ‘realistic’ Punjab in the movie.


Dr. Ramandeep Mahal is currently working as an Assistant Professor of English at Guru Nanak Khalsa College Yamunanagar. She received her Doctorate degree from Maharishi Markandeshwar Mullana Ambala in 2018. Her research interests include Anglo-American Literature, Indian Writing in English, African Literature. She is the author of more than twenty research papers.

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