One of the most intriguing trailers of 2016 is out, and it hasn’t emerged out of Big Bollywood.
Is Kabir Singh Chowdhry’s Mehsampur a biopic? A mockumentary? An acid trip? All of the above? The under-production film is a meta-narrative in which a filmmaker travels to Punjab to make a movie on singer Amar Singh Chamkila, who was killed along with his wife and stage partner Amarjot on March 8, 1988. Chamkila was a popular folk musician whose earthy, provocative and often bawdy songs commented on Punjabi society during the years of the Khalistani movement. The mystery of who killed Chamkila has never been solved.
The film’s title refers to the town where Chamkila was killed, but going by the trailer, Chowdhry has gone far beyond the confines of the conventional biopic. Several films have been announced over the years on Chamkila, and Chowdhry’s project is a comment on the futility of trying to summarise the singer’s complexity in a single production as well as the difficulty of getting a fact-based movie off the ground. Mehsampur, which is among the projects seeking completion funds at the Film Bazaar industry event in Goa (November 20-24), attempts to deconstruct the idea of a definitive biopic about a legend, said 30-year-old Chowdhry, who grew up in Chandigarh and studied anthropology at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai before turning to filmmaking. Excerpts from a conversation.
I first heard Chamkila while studying at the Yadavindra Public School. The school was filled with the children of people who had become rich overnight. Chamkila was a rite of passage for us. My parents were progressive, but lots of families would never let their children listen to Chamkila’s songs.
A certain class of people thought that Chamkila’s music was low-brow. His songs spoke the truth, of what was happening around him, and that is why people of the soil could connect with him. All the videos you find of Chamkila on the internet are of recordings by villagers with VHS cameras. In a way, Chamkila’s music was trucker music. There were songs about falling for the sister-in-law and about Khalistanis sharpening their weapons.
In Mehsampur, a filmmaker, played by Devrath Joshi, is doing research on a project based on Chamkila. He is an independent filmmaker, and he starts getting insecure about announcements of various other productions on Chamkila’s life. He starts to push the limits and disturb the environment. It is a very simple film, but the reason it looks so complex is that Mehsampur is also about the making of a film about Chamkila. The director is interfering with characters and pushing camera into their faces, while our own camera is a fly on the wall. Sometimes, the camera also captures us shooting the film.
Is Mehsampur a mockumentary? I too am struggling to figure out how to place the film, but the fact is that it is completely fictional. The characters are playing themselves, while I have also used actors. I have fictionalised the stories of some of the characters. I approached them to play themselves as close to what they are, but I cannot get the full 100 per cent of what these lives are really about.
For instance, the drunken man in the trailer, Kesar Singh Tikki, used to be Chamkila’s manager. The story goes that Chamkila didn’t take him on a tour to Canada, so he got drunk one night and broke all the windows of the office.
Filmmakers have a quest to be authentic about the material they are dealing with. They disturb the environment for their own selfish purposes. The filmmaker is engaged in an act of reconstruction – he is looking for drama and trying to create an environment in which something can happen.
The camera has certain limitations. With a camera in your hand, you come to a new place for a short period from Bombay and try and create something. You might be writing the most sensitive lines, but your methods can be all wrong.
I was writing a regular film about the Khalistan movement in Punjab with Chamkila in the backdrop. That was a straight-up script, but I didn’t want to make a biopic. It’s not interesting, it’s too much like a Wikipedia page. It becomes like a Caravan magazine article, and kills all the drama. The space in the 1980s in Punjab was very intense. It was a scary situation in which the police were no better than the Khalistanis, and this space excited me more than Chamkila’s life. Meanwhile, someone approached me to make a short film on Chamkila. I was obsessed with the subject.
Wherever my writer, Akshay Singh, and I went in Punjab, we learnt that other filmmakers had already been there. We used to think that we were virgins in that space, but somebody else had already been there. In a way, the movie is a reaction to all of this.
There was no script. We functioned like Christopher Doyle did on Wong Kar Wai’s 1997 movie Happy Together. Doyle wrote a diary about the making of the film, Don’t Try For Me, Argentina. We had 28 pages of a treatment note and seven months of our own research, and we found our film as we went along. Each process has been another draft in the script. Now, I am going to do the sound design, which is another draft. All these drafts are helping us get back to our original idea.
I shot the film in two stages, in 2015, and during the harvest in 2016. I chose the harvest because everybody is resting in Punjab. It’s a time when people are free and lazy, and I liked that the filmmaker was going to disrupt the lazy pattern of their lives. The land is another pattern in the film – there is the harvest, which ends with the burning of the crop.
The film just happened. I was in a particular zone, and it was difficult for me to get out of it. I don’t think I want to make a film like this again. Perhaps Mehsampur can help me finally make my film on the Khalistani movement and Chamkila.
You can’t talk about Chamkila without taking about Amarjot. They had an almost Brechtian style of performance. They were very involved with each other on the stage – it was like they were having a conversation where she would say something and he would respond.
Amarjot died with Chamkila. The old woman in the trailer is Surinder Sonia, who used to sing with Chamkila. When I met her, she was very scared, and I felt that she was being overpowered by her children and grandchildren, who were not letting her out of the house. I imagined her to be a prisoner in the studio – but that is purely my imagination. I could be wrong.
The other woman in the trailer is a fictional character, played by Navjot Randhawa. She is somebody who has gone to Bombay to work in films and has come back because of the casting couch. She hangs around in hotels looking for film crews who come to shoot in Punjab. There are also actors who sing Chamkila’s songs.
The guy who is taking off his pants in the trailer is Lal Chand, a dholak player who was in Mehsampur on the day Chamkila was killed. Lal Chand survived, and got a bullet in his arm. For the sake of cinema, we changed the place of the bullet wound to his inner thigh. He was upset, he said, I have told so many people that I got shot in the arm, they are going to come after me. I told him to tell them that he is only acting out a role.
Since we were talking about the Khalistan movement, we met several people who had been tortured. We would meet 60-70 people in a day, and we could not connect with them after the first 10 stories. It became a kind of comedy – there would be people sitting under a peepul tree and telling you about a torture technique in which the police would stretch the legs and tear the thigh muscles. There would be 20 people who would remove their pants and show us their injuries. On the way back, I would listen to Chamkila’s music in the car. It would calm me down somehow, and it balanced the whole thing.
There was no method because we were using mainly non-actors. Real people give out gold dust, and you have to be disruptive to extract that gold dust out of them. I developed relationships with each of my characters, and each of them understood what I was doing. But I anticipate that the film is going to be difficult for them to watch, it will shock them. I am not going anywhere near Punjab with this film.