‘Of all art forms, songs have biggest legs’ : The Tribune India

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‘Of all art forms, songs have biggest legs’

‘Of all art forms, songs have biggest legs’

Director Imtiaz Ali feels his upcoming film ‘Chamkila’ is the story of Punjab. ‘Watch it, see for yourself and then make up your mind,’ he says. PTI

Nonika Singh

Ever since the balladeer of love and romance Imtiaz Ali announced his film on slain Punjabi singer Amar Singh Chamkila, it has been creating a buzz. With the film slated for release on April 12 on Netflix, the celebrated filmmaker reflects on why he chose the popular but controversial singer’s life as his first biopic, and on the purpose of art itself. Excerpts from an interview with Nonika Singh...

Back in time, what did you see in Chamkila?

I would often come to Punjab to shoot and found people listening to him, and the remix versions, perhaps for the deep satisfaction and happiness it gave them. Then, I came to know that he had a very interesting life and was truly representative of music in Punjab.

Much of his life is already in public domain. What kind of Chamkila emerges in your film?

Frankly, this is my first biopic and not exactly my forte. But I have relied on first-hand research and people’s narratives to construct him. There is not much credible literature on him. I met many people like Charanjit Ahuja, recording engineer and music director, Kesar Singh Tikki, Surinder Shinda, Chamkila’s first wife, son and daughter for my knowledge base of the legendary singer.

You have already made a film (‘Rockstar’) on a singer’s life. Did that come in handy?

It’s not the same thing. In a biopic, you have to stick to facts. Even when there is no source of knowing, you have to be truthful. Like, what he may have said to his wife behind closed doors; you have to think like a psychologist, a detective.

This brings us to the conspiracy angle around his death. Did you use your detective skills here too?

Let me say it loud and clear, this is not an investigative piece. The film makes no claims whatsoever as to who killed him. It’s common knowledge that on March 8, 1988 (at Mehsampur in Jalandhar), he was killed (aged 27) by a gang of men. I am only concerned about the life of an artist at a time when Punjab was burning.

Is it an anatomy of fame?

You could say that. Fame is a double-edged sword; it can put you on a pedestal but also crucify you.

Have you faced the flipside of being famous?

To some extent, yes. People who have the privilege of being popular also endure special occupational hazards.

You are known for the Sufi idea of love and romance. But here was a singer who received a lot of flak for his vulgar songs. How do you reconcile with this dichotomy?

There is a larger question here — who decides what’s right or wrong, who will cast the first stone? What is the anatomy of censorship? Time and again, we come to a point where something is incredibly popular but heavily criticised. Even Sufi thought says, who are we to judge? At times, we have to remove the blinkers and view humanity with a bit more leniency.

Some experts feel music, particularly popular form, is not pure art since it caters to a market!

Art always caters to a market. There are few artists who don’t want their work to be seen or appreciated. Songs have to be popular, they don’t cost much and even the poorest have access to them. Of all art forms, I think songs have the biggest legs.

Do you think understanding Chamkila helps us understand Punjab better?

Most certainly. His is the story of Punjab and vice versa, a dynamic story, ironical and of opposites.

Was casting Diljit Dosanjh, a humongously popular singer, a big risk, for the world already knows him as Diljit? Did you have to work harder on the suspension of disbelief?

Now that you say it, perhaps. But then, Diljit is someone who does not carry the burden of his stardom on his shoulders. When he came to me, he told me he was a big fan of Chamkila and did not think of himself as Diljit. Whether audiences will accept him as Chamkila or not is a question to ponder over. We have done our best to represent Chamkila as honestly through this actor.

You have worked with one of the finest actors, how do you rate Diljit?

Amazing. I am very keen to know the viewers’ response to his performance.

Should art elevate or reflect?

It’s a mixture, it has to entertain and provide relief too. Though by entertainment, I don’t mean making people laugh.

Do you see ‘Chamkila’ as a love story too?

Yes, of a man in love with his music, his art, performance, a love that he could not forsake and paid with his life for it.

What would Imtiaz’s love story read like?

I am not interested in myself, I am happier in the world of making others’ stories come to life.

When you make a film on a singer, how do you strike a balance between retaining his music and new compositions?

I had decided that in the film, Chamkila would only sing his songs. But then, he did not make songs about himself or his life and to reflect upon that, we have songs in the background composed by AR Rahman.

Any songs of Chamkila on your playlist?

Many! I like ‘Baba Tera Nankana’, ‘Naam Jap Liya’, ‘Sikhar Dophari’, ‘Adhiya Da Nasha’ and ‘Kurti Satrang Di’, to name a few.

Did you toy with the thought of making ‘Chamkila’ in Punjabi?

Not really. I think it’s a universal subject and I wanted it to reach everywhere where my Hindi films do.

Considering that it has generated so much excitement, why didn’t you opt for a theatrical release?

Netflix came on board even before we began shooting. Besides, I wanted to understand how this medium of the present and future works. But it’s not true that it takes off the box-office pressure. Anyone who puts money has a way of knowing how their content is faring.

What would you say to your veere of Punjab, most of whom are looking forward to watching the film, but there are some who take offence at the slightest provocation?

Well, we have made this film with a lot of mohabbat. This is your film, of your Punjab, known for love. Watch it, see for yourself and then make up your mind.

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