The opening scene draws the viewer right in. It’s an open field, with crowds as far as the eye can see. There’s an air of anticipation and a little impatience. They could be waiting for a film star, an athlete, a leader. Then a man walks onto a makeshift stage with an iktara in his hand and starts singing. The crowd goes wild, but before the music works its magic, he and his wife are shot dead.
This really happened to legendary Punjabi singer Amar Singh Chamkila (on whom Imtiaz Ali has announced a biopic). Chamkila’s killers were never caught. Rohit Jugraj has fictionalised the incident for his Sony LIV series Chamak.
Jugraj turns his tribute to the rich tradition of Punjabi music – folk, sufi, classical, rap – into a son’s quest for the truth. The murder of Tara Singh (Gippy Grewal) and his wife Navpreet (Sharan Kaur) is left unsolved. Tara’s brother Satnam (Mahabir Bhullar) escapes to Canada with their infant son and raises him as his own.
Kaala (Paramvir Singh Cheema) turns into a hell raiser. He eventually makes his way back to Punjab. All he has from his past is a faded photo of his parents.
In Chandigarh, Kaala runs into the singer MC Square. Aspiring singer and drummer Jazz (Isha Talwar) offers Kaala a friendly ride and gets drawn into the whirlwind that Kaala’s life will soon become.
Kaala sets out to investigate who killed his parents, with disillusioned journalist Gurpal (Kuljeet Singh) as his main source. Pratap Deol (Manoj Pahwa), who runs the company that Tara had co-founded years ago, despairs of his three grown, spoilt offspring ever taking over the business.
Jazz is a buddy of the youngest, Guru (Mohit Malik). Even as Kaala goes after his targets, he finds fame as a singer and the love of Lata (Akasa Singh), the daughter of one of Tara’s friends, Jugal (Suvinder Vicky).
The show comprises six episodes, with another six scheduled to be released over the next few months. The script by Jugraj and S Fakira, which is in piquant Punjabi and Hindi, meanders into unrelated subplots. But the exquisite music (curated by Jugraj), keeps the narrative engaging.
Even minor characters are given some depth, such as the hitman Jagga (Prince Kanwaljit Singh), whose wisdom shows Kaala the way to proceed. Kaala is the most fascinating character, who expects favours like they were his birth right. He is capable of cruelly pushing a rival out of the way or toying with a woman’s emotions, but also turns into a self-effacing disciple to old-style music guru Jugal, who has marbles stuffed into his mouth till it bleeds.
The casting of Cheema in the lead role is inspired. His large hypnotic eyes, slight build and long hair give him an androgynous look. The supporting actors – particularly Pahwa and Malik and a deliberately hammy Mukesh Chhabra as a film producer – do their bit to prop up the series when it flags.
Punjabi music is Chamak’s raison d’etre. Malkit Singh and Mika make special appearances. Although the music scene has been criticised for its sexist lyrics and limited beats, the women in Chamak are no doormats, whether it is the fiery Jazz or Rocky Aunty (Navneet Nishan), who helps runs Pratap Deol’s music empire.
At the end of six episodes, Kaala is up against a formidable foe just as he has found his musical metier. Disappointingly, the mystery will be solved in the next season. This ploy to extend a show’s shelf life has not worked too well in the past. Perhaps music will make Chamak shine again.