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Is it a biopic? A documentary? Docu-fiction? ‘Mehsampur’ is none – and all of the above

Kabir Singh Chowdhry’s film, based on Punjabi folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila, is happy to avoid categorisation.

The disclaimer on Kabir Singh Chowdhry’s Mehsampur is an apt summary of the 98-minute film: Any resemblance to actual events, to persons living or dead, is not unintentional.

Located at a narrative crossroads of fiction, meta-fiction, documentary and biopic, Mehsampur refers to a place that can be found both on a map and somewhere in the imagination of its creators. Written by Akshay Singh, Mehsampur is a self-consciously experimental film that takes on different genres, only to reject them. There are shades of a biopic in the purported attempt to revisit the short and eventful life of firebrand Punjabi folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila, who was only 27 when he died. Chamkila was shot dead along with his partner Amarjot and two troupe members in Mehsampur in Punjab on March 8, 1988. The unsolved murders were blamed on various factors, including professional rivalry and an extreme attempt at censorship by Khalistani groups.

Elements of documentary are evident in the sequences involving Chamkila’s collaborators, who appear as themselves and revisit episodes from Chamkila’s life. Metafiction has its moment because Mehsampur is a film about the act of making a film: a young director, Devrat, sets out with his camera to meet Chamkila’s associates. Finally, there is pure fiction in the re-enactments and the constructed conversations with real and fictional characters, including an aspiring actress and a hotel singer who belts out English pop songs in a Punjabi accent. Devrat gets sidetracked during his quest by getting embroiled with the actress, Manpreet, whom he meets at his hotel. When Devrat casts Manpreet as Amarjot, a new set of complications ensues.

Mehsampur, then, is a film in search of a film – the one that eventually did not get made. “It’s a critique of the process of ethnography, of biography, of filmmaking,” Chowdhry said in an interview. “The film is confused, in a way. We can go to various places with it, like a documentary festival, or fiction, or even the genre space.”

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Mehsampur.

Mehsampur made its international debut at the Docs Against Gravity festival in Poland in May. It will also be screened at the Sydney Film Festival (June 6-17) and the London Indian Film Festival (June 21-July 1). The production process has been arduous, and some of the sweat and tears are reflected by the film, which explores the difficulty, and even impossibility, of making a straight-up biopic on a supernova like Chamkila.

The Dalit singer rose to popularity on the back of his earthy, often ribald lyrics and magnetic stage presence. Chamkila performed widely across the state and before the Punjabi diaspora in Canada, and his death cut short a career filled with promise. Several attempts have been made to adapt his life for the screen, including a documentary and a Punjabi feature, but these projects have not been completed.

Chowdhry’s own efforts were nearly derailed by a lack of funds and a debate over the form the film should take. “We shot the film in 2015, and everything has been dependent on the cash for us,” the 32-year-old filmmaker said. “I didn’t realise how much money goes into all this. It’s been about us begging for money from different places, and that is why it has taken so much time. There were points when I abandoned Mehsampur. My first editor locked the film in two months, but we kept feeling that more needed to be done. Luckily, we had a beautiful sound designer who was completely dedicated right to the last minute.”

The film originated as something quite different. Chowdhry and Akshay Singh, his partner at the production house Dark Matter Films, initially set out to make a fictional movie about Chamkila, titled Lal Pari. The problem began when they travelled to Punjab for research, only to realise that others had beaten them to it. “I was really pissed off that so many people are making films on Chamkila,” Chowdhry said. “We weren’t working on anything new. These guys had already been exposed. We thought that we would make a film about this process, and then use this film to help us to make the film that we actually want to make. Mehsampur is only the first step, and it won’t be the last.”

Mehsampur. Image credit: Dark Matter Pictures.
Mehsampur. Image credit: Dark Matter Pictures.

The unsettling journey is represented in Mehsampur through the character of the filmmaker Devrat. The line between whose film we are actually seeing – the one Devrat is shooting on his hand-held camera, or the one Chowdhry is making through Devrat – is hazy throughout.

Armed with heaps of angst and aggression and a disregard for boundaries, Devrat hustles Chamkila’s manager, Kesar Singh Tikki, former singing partner Surinder Sonia, and dholak player Lal Chand into sharing their memories of the folk artist. Devrat crosses the line with these people ever so often, such as in the disturbing sequence in which he makes Tikki recreate over and over again a drunken attack on Chamkila’s office in 1987 when the singer refused to take Tikki along for a tour in Canada. “You need to act drunk,” Devrat yells at Tikki.

“That scene is about the cruelty of recreation – how filmmakers, in their quest for authenticity, will push their film to insane lengths,” Chowdhry pointed out. “But Tikki also knew exactly what was going in – he is game like that.”

Tikki, Surinder, and Lal Chand turn out to be adroit performers, giving Devrat and Chowdhry the spice they think is needed to make the film work. “Take my side pose,” Sonia preens to Devrat, before skewering his lack of empathy with the damning declaration, “You are only into yourself, me, me me.”

Devrat and Kesar Singh Tikki in Mehsampur. Image credit: Dark Matter Pictures.
Devrat and Kesar Singh Tikki in Mehsampur. Image credit: Dark Matter Pictures.

Are these scenes scripted or spontaneous – and what are the ethics of using real people to play approximations of themselves? Chowdhry is aiming to throw off viewers, make them think about the level of artifice that can often be found even in documentaries that claim to be about real people. He also wants to pull the biopic-seeking director off the pedestal, and underline the self-serving nature of filmmakers who only see and hear what they want to despite the contradictions playing out in front of them.

“I was actually thinking of casting all the parts,” the 32-year-old director revealed. “We wanted Chamkila’s son, Jaimal, in the film, and had some scenes written around him, but we couldn’t get him, so we had to scrap the scenes. We have tried to keep everything as close to their real lives as possible. Since they are all non-actors, we had a treatment note and a script, but they were free-flowing with their performances. We found the beat in the edit, which had to convey the sense that it has all been manipulated.”

The only actor is Jagjeet Sandhu, the performer at the hotel where Devrat is staying, and who croons Baby One More Time and My Heart Will Go On with feeling. “He is a singer and a fine actor, and he is now doing solo hero films in Punjab,” Chowdhry said.

Lal Chand in Mehsampur. Image credit: Dark Matter Pictures.
Lal Chand in Mehsampur. Image credit: Dark Matter Pictures.

Mehsampur is ultimately a film about circling around a subject rather than the subject itself. The project suggests that it is impossible to know, and encapsulate, a person’s life with certainty, and that the biopic is as much a piece of fiction as a made-up story. “We have had more than a hundred years or more or cinema, and we have to play more with its elements,” Chowdhry said. “For me and my partners, this was like film school, like a lab. We figured out what not to do and what to do when we eventually made our film on Chamkila. That story still needs to be told.”

Chamkila proves to be a spectral presence in Mehsampur, glimpsed in grainy footage and evoked through the scattershot memories of his associates. Chowdhry could not use any of Chamkila’s music in Mehsampur since he could not afford the rights – and this frustration feeds into the film’s general air of elusiveness and mystery.

“Through the process of making Lal Pari, we were listening to Chamkila’s songs 24/7, and the people who worked on the film could feel his presence,” Chowdhry declared. “There is a ghost of Chamkila that has been left behind. I sometimes go for Chamkila’s barsis. This one time, it started raining, and everybody left. Some drunkards started banging the speakers and singing his songs. I filmed this, but I got a negative reaction from the organisers. They thought I was making fun of Chamkila. But for me, these drunks still left behind in the rain are the true fans of Chamkila.”

The singer’s interrupted legacy is most poignantly felt in Tikki, Sonia and Lal Chand, who give the impression of never having recovered from Chamkila’s death. “Lal Chand had a good life before, but now, he is stuck in a situation where he is living with six other families,” Chowdhry said. “Tikki was always trying to make deals with us, and we tried to bring that out with our own experience.”

Mehsampur hasn’t been screened yet for Chamkila’s friends, or in Punjab. “I am scared to see how people react everywhere,” Chowdhry said. “We think eggs will be thrown at us. People will start tearing their seats at the crap we’ve made. But we have been sincere and truthful. We have spent all this time with a lot of conviction, so there isn’t a single false note. I have not tried to lie.”

Chowdhry is “over this trip” for the moment, and “want to make things that are false from now on”. He is working on a fictional film that involves a serial killer, body horror, and a prison setting.

Kabir Singh Chowdhry.
Kabir Singh Chowdhry.
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