Chamkila: An Urban Punjabi Narrative

Last weekend, I watched Chamkila on Netflix. It has stayed with me. As a friend said, "It still rests on my shoulders and walks with me", so much so that I am compelled to offload my thoughts amid a busy week.

I do not understand the technicalities of Cinema, and I don't intend to sound deep; I loved Chamkila because it aroused in me a storm of opposing emotions, making me think of my privilege, context, hometown, childhood, youth, and life beyond the routine. As a Punjabi woman raised in urban Punjab in the '90s, I felt sad, stupid, uncomfortable, vulnerable, proud, and happy. I hate to admit that I neither knew Chamkila-Amarjot nor their life story until Ishq Mitaye was released, and I was taken aback by the befitting and raw vibe that a music director not born in Punjab generated through music.

In retrospect, I have faded childhood memories of Pehle Lalkare Naal Main Darr Gayi playing in the streets and at weddings, but this music was "too rustic" for me and my friends with access to MTV. I was born into a modest family and educated in a Convent school. We read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea in Class X, utterly oblivious to the local context, community problems, tastes, preferences, and artists. Ironically, I was only 40.8 km away from that world.

Credit: Google

A film, I understand, is an outcome of immense hard work. There is a leader dependent on each member's understanding, visualization, and contribution. I am sure, through sweat and blood the team contributed, but I know only five contributors due to my limited knowledge.

Imtiaz Ali (what an exceptionally attractive man!) created magic. For me everything worked - detailing visible in frames, creation of the same rural vibe back home, animation, graphics, original videos, live singing, and display of Hindi lyrics. Diljit (oozing respect, style, and modesty) evoked intense emotions. But I feel he has a slight edge over others, he comes from the region. I have noticed his mischievous strategy of underplaying in interviews and then emerging as a surprise - sometimes reminds me of school when I would mention that I didn't know anything before the exam and ended up scoring the highest.

Parineeti! My heart goes out to her! She has struggled with weight for years and still chose to gain. She knew she would have to sing beside Diljit, and that she was a new singer and and an urban Punjabi. I guess she bore the maximum pressure. How beautiful and brave she was as Amarjot! When the duo sings on stage, the whole team's craft is apparent. In all efforts, the lyrics stood out. I first encountered Irshad Kamil in The Slow Interview and have felt deeply connected to his work. Each song is diverse - sometimes into your face, sometimes naughty, sometimes subtle, and sometimes heart-wrenching.

Through the narrative, the songs, the music, and the performances, Chamkila raises several questions - too many in a single film. It was not released on OTT. I feel this is quite smart as a businessman. Perhaps, at some point, it might be in theatres on demand. The film presents some experimentation using technology. There is an attempt to reach a wide audience bridging the language gap. Different angles emerge through storytelling including caste, second marriage, friendship, business ethics, the status of women versus men, the role of religion, and so on. It might take a complete book to explore all angles, however, what left a mark on my soul is the scene where Chamkila is interviewed by an urban reporter dressed in pants. She is unable to understand how he writes lecherous songs but feels shy to look at her. Chamkila responds that his music is for survival, he is not in a position to judge right or wrong, and he writes what people enjoy.

I read that Parineeti chose Chamkila over Animal. There is a strange similarity. Animal was critiqued for what it presented; Chamkila was looked down upon for what he performed. Both artists plead that they present the truth - vulgar or difficult for some people. But the class and caste dynamics were very different for both. Chamkila was threatened and eventually killed; today he is being celebrated. Matters of the world are complex. Do things in retrospect tend to seem right? Do we look back at people and times gone by with fondness, and ignore the present? Further, why do we derive pleasure from humiliating others? Someone who indulges in anything uncivilized in the eyes of the majority becomes a mockery, a threat. People, irrespective of their own stories, feel the need to correct the one treading the "wrong path."

Sourced from

Of all human emotions, humiliation is the worst if one is at the receiving end and it seems to be the most fulfilling for those giving it. I feel one who has borne humiliation will never choose love, she will always choose not to be humiliated over being loved. In one African tribe, when someone does wrong, the community gathers around the person and talks about the good things that the person has done. Probably, this is too much to ask in urban contexts. But maybe we do not need empathy as much as the ability to stop humiliating others.

Sometimes, we may find what we do not understand in our movies. This is why Chamkila stayed with me; it might stay with you, too! Streaming now on Netflix!

Sourced from

Write a comment ...


Assistant Professor, Malaviya National Institute of Technology Jaipur. PhD, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee.