The idea of Amar Singh Chamkila and Punjabiyat - Hindustan Times
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The idea of Amar Singh Chamkila and Punjabiyat

ByGagan Deep Sharma
May 11, 2024 12:03 AM IST

As with any artistic endeavour, Amar Singh Chamkila is subject to interpretation and critique, and its portrayal of gender dynamics needs to be examined

Cinema can create heroes/villains out of characters and instantly elevate them to the level of universally adored or reviled figures. The medium has been extensively used for creating icons out of real-world personalities, and broadening their appeal beyond their own geographical contexts. Movies including Schindler’s List, The Social Network, Darkest Hour, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Dangal, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Mary Kom, and Pad Man, among others, are examples of biopics that celebrate the success of great personalities, while also drawing inspiration from their life-journeys.

Amar Singh Chamkila PREMIUM
Amar Singh Chamkila

Amar Singh Chamkila is an addition to the repository of biopics that presents a king-size account of the legendary Punjabi singer’s journey. It enriches director Imtiaz Ali’s brand, not just through its impressive depiction but also its striking presentation and direction. Being a biopic of a singer and songwriter, the movie benefits immensely from AR Rahman’s involvement in it. Rahman’s rich understanding of music has helped him recreate the magic of Chamkila’s singing. The icing on the cake is the acting of the lead actors.

The film has the potential to elevate Chamkila to the status of a cultural icon for Punjabiyat (Punjabi culture), and therein lies the problem with the film. The biggest challenge while creating biopics is to maintain the delicate balance between artistic expression, factual accuracy, and broad generalisations. No matter what Chamkila sang or performed, it is not Punjabi culture — it never was, and therefore, it cannot be generalised as such. While the Khalistan movement was raging in the 1980s, Chamkila was enjoying unprecedented popularity in Punjab. His voice had the precision of a music engineer, someone who could discern the audience’s ideal vocalist and bring him to life. Ribaldry was the key ingredient of his lyrics. He thought it to be the tool for connecting with the masses, especially from the underprivileged strata. He mocked the sanctity of familial and social relations by diluting the harmonious connection between a person and her/his brother/sister-in-law, between a father-in-law and his daughter-in-law, and featured extra-marital affairs of the father of one person with the mother of someone else in his songs. This surely was not the norm in Punjabi singing, then, now or before.

To reinforce the argument, it is important to consider Chamkila’s contemporaries. The list includes the legendary Gurdas Maan, Kuldeep Manak, Surinder Shinda, Didar Sandhu, Mohammad Sadiq, Lal Chand Yamla Jatt, Asa Singh Mastana, Surinder Kaur, Narinder Biba, K Deep, Jagmohan Kaur, among others. Their lyrics stood far apart from those of Chamkila. While most of his contemporaries celebrated the richness in Punjabi folklore (for instance, Chhalla, Jugni, Mirza, Heer, and other similar folk sung by most of the above, and special emphasis on Kaliyan by Kaliyan da Badshah Kuldeep Manak), Chamkila was busy building a homogeneity of narratives around men’s right to have “sex” outside their marriage. In doing so, he was consciously objectifying the women.

Chamkila was certainly within his rights to portray gender dynamics in the manner he deemed fit as well as present a regressive view of women in the society. But his overt attempts to normalise gender inequity through his portrayal of women as objects in music and imagery, as well as his casual sexism in character interactions, is problematic.

Punjabi philosophy, heritage and culture draw immensely from the poetic and philosophical richness of Guru Nanak and other Sikh Gurus and takes pride in the expressions of Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Shah Hussain, Amrita Pritam, Mohan Singh, and Surjit Patar, among others. Celebrating Punjabiyat, which is based on the teachings of the Gurus, Puran Singh, an academician, wrote, “Punjab vassda Guraan de naam te” (Punjab lives in the name of the Gurus). This is evident in the lives and martyrdoms of Guru Teg Bahadur, Guru Gobind Singh, Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh, and Kartar Singh Sarabha, among others. The contributions of the Gadri Baabe wrote a new chapter in the journey of Indian Independence. More recently, this fighting spirit of the Punjabis for what they deem to be the right causes was on display during the protests against the farm laws.

Against the rich, progressive, and fighting spirit of Punjabiyat, Imtiaz Ali falls prey to the temptation of sensationalism in portraying Chamkila as a tharkila (libidinous) and sexila (a coinage likely denoting sexual appeal) hero who stands on his principles. The film attempts to glorify Chamkila as a musical revolutionary, but it glosses over his shortcomings and bluntly ignores the voices of those women who might have been marginalised or harmed by his actions.

Punjabi culture is a vibrant tapestry woven from diverse threads, including voices that challenge conventional norms and stereotypes. By homogenising and simplifying Punjabi culture, Amar Singh Chamkila overlooks the complexity inherent in any society. In contrast to the actual Punjabiyat, it focuses on one misogynistic outlier named Chamkila. As with any artistic endeavour, Amar Singh Chamkila is subject to interpretation and critique, and its portrayal of gender dynamics needs to be examined within the broader context of artistic expressions, societal attitudes, factual accuracy, and broad-based generalisation.

Gagan Deep Sharma is professor, University School of Management Studies, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi and a Punjabi poet and recipient of the 2014 Yuva Puraskar by the Sahitya Akademi. The views expressed are personal

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