Art & Entertainment

Decoding Chamkila—The Film And The Singer

Is it possible to detach Chamkila from his Dalit identity, his impoverished background—he made socks in a factory—and the turbulent times in Punjab when he was a rage? Now that the buzz around Chamkila is gradually subsiding, it is the right time to see Chamkila in a slightly larger context

Jaiman Chamkila
Image shared by Jaiman Chamkila on Instagram Photo: Jaiman Chamkila
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Since its release, a lot has been written about Chamkila. While a section of critics gave thumbs up to the film and Imtiaz Ali’s craft, others questioned whether it was appropriate to glorify Amar Singh Chamkila, who was famous, or infamous, for writing obscene songs. Now that the buzz around the film is gradually subsiding, it is probably the right time to see Chamkila, the film and the singer, in a slightly larger context. 

Is it possible to decode an artist without understanding the historical context? Is it possible to detach Chamkila from his Dalit identity, his impoverished background—he made socks in a factory—and the turbulent times in Punjab when he was a rage? What about obscenity in his songs, and despite the obscenity, why was he the most sought after? 

Allegations of obscenity are nothing new in the world of art and cinema. Chamkila was no exception. But he was different than, say, the bourgeois class, who often uses obscenity to shock the world or to make a statement. Chamkila was a subaltern, a chamar, an untouchable. But that did not come in the way of his popularity. People from all walks of life and cutting across classes invited him to perform. He was a regular at weddings and other community events. 

Chamkila claimed that his lyrics were a product of his surroundings—he wrote what he saw around him. For him, his songs were a source of livelihood and also a gateway to fame. 

One might ask what was so obscene about Chamkila’s songs. Here’s a sample. In the film, lyrics of one of the songs, ‘mere liye tu aish ka saaman hai’, sung in a female voice, loosely translate to this—“You plunder my body thinking I am weak and you are macho, but in reality, you are just a means through which I seek pleasure.” Though these words were not written by Chamkila, but this was essentially the flavor of his songs—songs that were enjoyed by classes and masses, as well as women. 

Screengrab from Chamkila
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Now, let’s draw a parallel between these songs and the present-day Bhojpuri songs like ‘pandeji ka beta hoon, chipak ke chumma leta hoon’ or ‘Baby beer pee ke naache lagli chammak chammak chham’, that are also immensely popular. There is a slight difference. While the Punjabi songs have some metaphorical meaning even though they are full of sexism, but Bhojpuri lyrics are outrightly bad in taste, crass and full of objectification. I am not defending the obscenity in Chamkila’s songs, but it is a significant distinction. 

It’s also important to understand why Chamkila continued to sing obscene songs and why was he constantly in demand. We must not forget that Chamkila was a Dalit. Songs were a means of survival for him. He was not only trying to make a name for himself but was also working hard to earn money and make his life better. Have there been Dalit singers in, say, Bihar? Prominent names like Manoj Tiwary, Khesari Lal Yadav and Guddu Rangeela hail from the upper caste. Some may argue that Yadav belongs to the OBC community, but in Bihar, the condition of Yadavs has never been as bad as those from the lower castes. The name of Bhikhari Thakur is also mentioned, but he belonged to the barber community and was not an untouchable like Chamkila. 

Having said that, it should also be underlined that Chamkila was not a Dalit icon; he was not striving to be one. He was a survivor who wrote and sang songs and enjoyed his new-found wealth and popularity. It was much later when the Dalit identity crisis was heard in Punjabi songs and in the late 90s and the early 2000s, songs like Poot Chamara Da became popular.

Yo Yo Honey Singh comes much later with his brand of obscenity and one can clearly remember that during the Nirbhaya episode, he was severely criticised for his objectification of women. Now none of his older songs can be found on YouTube. But he later made it big in Bollywood. Maybe, had Chamkila lived longer, he would have moved on from singing obscene songs and tried other genres. In fact, as per the movie, he did. After the initial threats, he wrote and sang devotional songs which became super hit. But the phase did not last long. People wanted him to sing the obscene songs that he had previously written. And he obliged. 

Personally, I feel, despite the sexism in his songs, Chamkila was an icon because his songs were slice of life. He wrote what he saw. As one of the characters in the film says: “Many things are done in secrecy, right?” Chamkila revealed these secrets. He brought them out in the open. He wrote and sang about male fantasies—morally right or wrong, who are we to judge? People love these songs, he would argue. He was not an elite songwriter who studied in Oxford or Harvard and who quoted Plato or Aristotle on nudity. In that case, he would have been hailed as an intellectual, trying to cause positive disruption in society. He was Chamkila. He was what he was. Real and genuine. That’s why people relate to him. 

Imtiaz Ali probably understood this and that’s why his film starts in a reverse order. It starts with voices of people who thought Chamkila was a “ganda sa banda” and a “social darinda”, the one who sang ashleel songs. Gradually, the movie unravels, and we get drawn into Chamkila’s real world—his poverty, his caste, his abysmal work conditions, and his passion for writing and singing songs. The whole transition from singing obscene songs to devotional songs and again going back to singing obscene songs was smooth. And all this transpiring in the backdrop of militancy came through beautifully. By the time the movie reached its end and Chamkila died, all the characters who had initially abused Chamkila, grew sympathetic to him. That depicts the prowess of Ali as a filmmaker who adopts an alternative way of storytelling, well aware of the fact that Chamkila had more detractors than supporters. I am not a fan of Imtiaz Ali or his films, but Chamkila has the potential to redefine Ali as a filmmaker. 

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What I also realised while watching Chamkila was that Punjab is the only state where poets or singers have been murdered. Avtar Singh Pash was gunned down (1988), then Chamkila (1988), and very recently, in 2022, Sidhu Moose Wala. As far as I remember, no poets or singers were killed in such a brutal manner in any other states. This also separates Chamkila or any other singer from Punjab from the poets/singers in the rest of India.

Chamkila was a phenomenon in Punjab when he was alive. His life was short. He was just 27. His death was as interesting as his life was. Intrigued filmmakers will keep making films on him. But that will not make him immortal, it is his songs that will live forever. 

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(Jey Sushil is a writer and a journalist) 

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