Mehsampur movie review: A playful, anarchic film on iconic Punjabi folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila's death
Kabir Singh Chowdhry's debut feature Mehsampur, based on the unsolved murder of iconic Punjabi folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila, is trippy, absurb and perennially avoids categorisation.
Editor's note: The 20th edition of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival is finally here, and with it comes an unending list of critically acclaimed Indian and international films to watch. Firstpost will review the most promising of these films.
At heart, Mehsampur, Kabir Singh Chowdhry’s debut feature film, is a ghost story.
It is populated by phantoms, puppets and sprites for characters, will-o’-the-wisps from the past and a protagonist armed with a camera who isn’t even aware he is in a movie, or that he is a character, always under watch. If film is in essence a succession of ghostly approximations of the real, it may be apt to describe Mehsampur as a film itself haunted by a presence, that of Amar Singh Chamkila, the iconic Punjabi folk singer who was gunned down along with his wife under mysterious circumstances in 1988. We glimpse his physical form in grainy footage from years past, his soul in the renditions of his songs by contemporary singers, his influence in the voices of his imitators and the agony and ecstasy of his legacy in the furrowed faces of his collaborators who lived to tell his story.
Now screening in the India Gold section at MAMI, Mehsampur is freewheeling, playful, anarchic, absurd, trippy, farcical and witty, often all at once. Occasionally, it even rages against its creators, claws and all. When a sloshed Devrath, the wannabe documentarian making a film on Chamkila, mistakenly mows a dog down with his car, the music growls and shapeshifts into a monster out to stomp this ingenue transgressor.
Most impressively, however, Mehsampur isn’t a film that strives to be anything in particular. It refuses to tick boxes, use talking heads or tell conventional tales, celebrate or castigate. Its rhythm is that of a wild animal out on a hunt, sometimes halting to drink from a pool or howl for no reason at all.
Devrath is a filmmaker travelling through the heart of Punjab to make a documentary on Chamkila. Hard-nosed and manipulative, he won’t let anything come in the way of his film. There are no lines he won’t cross or people he won’t push to the edge in the service of a good story. He meets and interviews a motley cast in Ludhiana—Kesar Singh Tikki, Chamkila’s manager, his singing partner, and Lal Chand, a dholak player, whom he finds in differing states of ruin, the golden days of ‘The Elvis of Punjab’ now long gone. Devrath then meets Manpreet, an aspiring actress, and sets out on a road trip to Mehsampur with her and Chand, to learn more about the singer’s demise.
As Devrath’s car swoons down the road and Chowdhry’s film rumbles toward its fated destination, its characters, all in different stages of possession, frantically begin searching for a narrative. Devrath will soon turn into Chamkila, a lovelorn Manpreet reduced to a bundle of sighs by his side, a pale, slowly wasting imitation of Amarjot, the singer’s wife, as Chand runs for his life in a re-enactment of the events of the killing.
But this is merely the finale of a transformation that has been underpinning the film’s characters all along. These are people trapped in a borrowed time looking for a way out and, finding none, resigning to changing into someone else, never fully able to accomplish that feat. Only Chand is being driven towards this deep end by a Devrath slowly getting unhinged, firm in his conviction that an authentic film is impossible without the dholak master’s participation.
Mehsampur’s feral charm is matched by a suppleness of narrative. There are sequences that guffaw at the viewer and others that scurry by like a rat’s tail disappearing through a hole. The looseness also hints at a lot of room. Chowdhry utilises it to add sequences that nod at all kinds of genres, the road trip being the most fully formed and stirring amongst all of them. It is buffeted by an ethereal song that momentarily pulls the viewer—wounded, tickled and gashed by the preceding events—beneath the surface of the film, alongside a near-hypnotized Manpreet, for once softening the hard exterior of the film.
Soon after, the characters sleepwalk into a mock-bloody finale.
Chowdhry’s impressive avant-garde tapestry, for all its characters’ obsessions with the past, is a film firmly rooted in the present. But Mehsampur’s present is a bulbous, amoebic and pulsating mass, quite like the living heart in a typically absurd sequence at the end of the film. It is a present where Manpreet haunts the streets of the village, resignedly scattering pages from Devrath’s script here and there under the dirty yellow lights. A present that is finding it increasingly difficult to make sense of the past. Its characters even more so. Perhaps no one more than Devrath himself.
Right at the beginning of the film, we watch him putting a sticker on his car while he’s enroute to Ludhiana. It is an image of Bhindrawale, the dreaded terrorist who bloodied the roots of Punjab in the ’80s. The text accompanying the image, loosely translated, reads, “It seems I need to return”. Chowdhry’s film is a solemn reminder of our present being endlessly haunted by the past.
Mehsampur will be screened at Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival on 28 October. Check out the schedule here.
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