Imtiaz Ali’s Amar Singh Chamkila attempts to bottle the essence of a legendary Punjabi singer who evades easy categorisation. Murdered in 1988 at the age of 27 when he was at the height of his powers, Chamkila is an exemplar of the supernova who lives and dies for art.

Biopics on Chamkila have been previously announced and abandoned; at least one of them, starring Diljit Dosanjh, was completed but stalled by a lawsuit. Chamkila’s unsolved assassination shaped key plot points in Rohit Jugraj’s web series Chamak (2023). The difficulty of drawing definitive conclusions about Chamkila’s multi-faceted legacy led to Kabir Singh Chowdhry’s fascinating experimental docu-fiction Mehsampur (2018).

Ali’s version, which is out on Netflix and is also led by Dosanjh, reaches for low-hanging fruit: who – or what – killed Chamkila?

The screenplay, by Imtiaz Ali and Sajid Ali, unfolds like a police procedural. Chamkila (Dosanjh) is gunned down along with his singer-wife Amarjot (Parineeti Chopra) soon after they arrive in Mehsampur for a concert. A police officer who dismisses the icon as a vulgarian learns about Chamkila’s hardscrabble background, overnight success, and the unwelcome attention he attracted for his bawdy, taboo-busting songs.

Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra in Amar Singh Chamkila (2024). Courtesy Window Seat Films/Select Media/Saregama/Netflix.

I discovered the man who was born Dhani Ram, one man says. I gave him his stage name, another asserts. Inspired by the goings-on around him, Chamkila wields his tumbi like a magic wand, bewitching local listeners as well as the Punjabi diaspora. Yet, his fame cannot shield from him from the ire of militants, religious leaders and the police.

Dosanjh, Chopra, and a few other singers perform Chamkila’s original songs in Punjabi, with the Hindi translations appearing on the screen. AR Rahman’s Punjabi pop-inflected Hindi soundtrack is woven into the musical-like saga. (Punjab is called Panjab throughout the movie.)

The hot-blooded account of a cold case includes animation, split screens and footage of the real Chamkila and Amarjot. There is enough archival material included in the film to make the heart yearn for a straight-up documentary.

The music video-level aesthetic creates enough momentum to distract from how mundane the movie turns out to be. Chowdhry’s Mehsampur suggested that the aura around Chamkila was too thick to penetrate, especially by filmmakers who had not breathed the same air as him. Ali is untrammelled by such concerns. Having bagged the rights to Chamkila’s music catalogue, and having recruited big-name talent, Ali sets out to Bollywoodise the folk performer.

Naram Kaalja, Amar Singh Chamkila (2024).

The biopic is fixated on the explicit lyrics that put Chamkila on the top of charts and hit lists. Ali’s recent projects similarly focus on sexual matters, including the shows She, about a repressed police constable, and Dr Arora, about a sexologist.

Amar Singh Chamkila too gets hot under the collar about Chamkila’s unabashed lasciviousness while claiming to celebrate his liberated ways. Surely Chamkila didn’t catch on only because of his libidinous lyrics? If so, what does this say about his fans?

AR Rahman’s melodious tunes includes Vida Karo, in which lyricist Irshad Kamil points to the hypocrisy of Chamkila’s world. But the movie itself can’t move beyond Chamkila as the creator of dirty ditties.

Chamkila’s Dalit identity, the reason his earthy songs vaulted over socio-economic divisions, a sense of what else was happening in the music industry and Punjabi society at large – these barely concern the biopic’s makers. Instead, the 146-minute film keeps looping back to the content of Chamkila’s music.

Clumsy montages feebly address the tricky timing of Chamkila’s ascent – when the movement to carve out an independent Khalistan was at its peak. Ali is better equipped to handle the romance between Chamkila and Amarjot, which grows in the back of crowded cars in which they are squashed with other travellers.

Tu Kya Jaane, Amar Singh Chamkila (2024).

Initially coming off as a wide-eyed novice who doesn’t know what has hit him, Chamkila begins to reveal his complex personality. Although Dosanjh looks a bit too urbane to play the rustic singer, the actor scores in the scenes where Chamkila stops pretending to be on the outside while amazing things keep happening to him. Dosanjh is also an effortless charmer, which works when Chamkila is tuning up the crowds.

The rest of the overly hearty cast flail about in a choppy narrative that tries a bit too hard to jazz up a simple storyline. The Chamkila mystique evades Ali’s take, paving the way for a deep-dive biopic on the singing sensation.

Amar Singh Chamkila (2024).

Also read:

Irshad Kamil on Imtiaz Ali and film lyrics: ‘You don’t need heavy words to save you’