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'Amar Singh Chamkila' & Violent Public Censorship: What Is 'Appropriate' Art?

Imtiaz Ali's Amar Singh Chamkila, starring Diljit Dosanjh in the lead, is streaming on Netflix.

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'Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice'
Henry Loius Gates

A film that is being talked-about at length now is Imtiaz Ali's Amar Singh Chamkila, starring Diljit Dosanjh in the lead. It narrates the story of one of the most popular but controversial singers of Punjab - Amar Singh Chamkila. Hailing from a village in Punjab, Chamkila managed to enthral both men and women with his titillating lyrics. He broke records, and roofs of terraces. But the very songs that earned him feverish fame also led to his death. And that's one aspect that the film focuses on - can the same art that is lapped by the masses be categorised as 'obscene' and what does violent public censorship mean for artistes?

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'Amar Singh Chamkila' & Gatekeeping Of Art

With Amar Singh Chamkila, Imtiaz Ali urges us to have a very important conversation - that of censorship. The narrative follows the life of the ‘Elvis of Punjab,’ aka the controversial Punjabi singer Amar Singh Chamkila. The backdrop is the tumultuous 1980s, and Chamkila enjoyed massive popularity, so much so that he (if we are to believe the film) outsold one of Amitabh Bachchan’s shows in Canada. However, Chamkila did not have it easy at all and it’s fitting that he was compared to none other than Elvis Presley. Just as Elvis was accused of corrupting the youth of America with his ‘pelvic thrusts,’ Chamkila had to deal with the cultural gatekeepers that were irked by his sexually charged lyrics. 

Through Chamkila’s journey, Imtiaz asks an important question - who decides what “appropriate” form of entertainment is?

Why did Chamkila and his wife Amarjot Kaur sing those songs? As mentioned by a character in the film, Chamkila simply composed what people were too embarrassed to say in public. He had no filters, he didn’t pretend. And that’s exactly what he tells a posh reporter who questions him about the objectification of women in his songs. He does not deny that he does. But he also says, “Chhote log yehi pasand karte hain…” and he also reminds her that most of the people in the country are like him - ordinary. 

Imtiaz Ali's Amar Singh Chamkila, starring Diljit Dosanjh in the lead, is streaming on Netflix.

Diljit Dosanjh in a still from Chamkila.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Chamkila’s firm belief that what he was doing was right got him killed. People took offence, and they decided to retaliate with violence. The prudes began complaining that people were dying, and Chamkila and Amarjot were dancing to “Jijaji meri kamar ka naap le lo.” Is it appropriate? - the words kept echoing. But in those violent times, where there was bloodshed all around, who is to tell the masses what gives them joy and an escape?

Imtiaz Ali's Amar Singh Chamkila, starring Diljit Dosanjh in the lead, is streaming on Netflix.

A still from Chamkila.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

If there’s something called freedom of expression, do we need select few to be ‘upholders of morality’ or do we let people self-censor? Chamkila says, “Why am I being targeted when other singers sing such songs, too?” There’s no definitive answer, and the film doesn’t take sides either. Ultimately, people must have the choice to decide what they want to read or watch.

That’s how Chamkila led his life, too. There was a period when he took the criticism to stride, got scared and started writing devotional songs (which, too, became huge hits) but the masses wanted the songs that made him a star. They made him a star, so don’t they get to decide what form of entertainment makes them forget their troubles?    

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Vandalisation, Violence - Where Do We Draw The Line?

There's a difference between institutionally-sanctioned censorship (the censor board in our country is also perplexing) and banning movies left, right and centre on the pretext of 'sentiments being hurt.' How fragile the sentiments are!

Deepika Padukone-starrer Padmavat landed in hot waters ever since shooting of the Sanjay Leela Bhansali directorial began. The objections started with rumours of there being a dream sequence between Rani Padmavati (Deepika) and Allauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh).

Imtiaz Ali's Amar Singh Chamkila, starring Diljit Dosanjh in the lead, is streaming on Netflix.

The Karni Sena had held protests against the release of Padmaavat.

(Photo: PTI)

Members of the Karni Sena attacked Bhansali at the Jaipur set of the film. Another set in Kohlapur was vandalised and set on fire. There was also a reward announced for those who could chop Deepika's nose. All this over a fictional piece of work.

Examples of such blatant threats and repercussions are endless. Remember the harassment Aamir Khan went through with multiple films of his?

The actor had voiced his support for the Narmada Bachao Andolan and lobbied for the rehabilitation of those affected by the project. The result? The Youth Wing of Gujarat's BJP orchestrated a ban on Rang De Basanti (2006) and even asked for a ban on Fanaa with threats to vandalise theatres screening the movie.

Thus, two movies which were cleared by the CBFC were not shown in the Gujarat due to unjust political pressure. Aamir's latest film Laal Singh Chaddha was also a victim of incessant trolling. Ahead of the film's release in 2022, an old clip of the actor's was circulated on social media where he is seen expressing concern about the state of affairs of the country and questioning his and his family's safety.

Imtiaz Ali's Amar Singh Chamkila, starring Diljit Dosanjh in the lead, is streaming on Netflix.

Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor in a still from Laal SIngh Chaddha.

(Image Courtesy: Google)

The Shiv Sena notoriously got Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) removed from theatres as they opposed the lesbian relationship in the movie or threatened the release of My Name Is Khan (2010) due to Shah Rukh Khan’s remarks in favour of including Pakistani players in the IPL.

OTT platforms are also not being spared. Nayanthara-starrer Annapoorani was removed from Netflix after it was accused of promoting 'love jihad' and hurting religious sentiments. A Washington Post investigation highlighted that a number of projects were shelved by Netflix and Amazon Prime Video that involved politics, caste and religion. Among the casualties were Anurag Kashyap's adaptation of Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, Dibakar Banerjee's Tees (on a Kashmiri family's struggles in present day India) and Vikramaditya Motwane's documentary Indi(r)a’s Emergency.

With every film, show and book under scanner where exactly do we draw the line?

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Critique, But Don't Threaten

The years of suppression and calls for boycott has now created a culture where not just politicians, but so-called 'protectors of culture' feel entitled to not only voice their opposition but also derail creative freedom of artistes.

These protest-bound and gullible people should realise that they have every right to critique and dislike an artist's work, but taking up arms and turning into vigilantes set a dangerous precedent.

Do not subscribe to an artist if their sensibilities don't match yours, it's as simple as that. In an age of armchair-activism and social media 'critics' Amar Singh Chamkila raises important questions - Who decides what kind of art is 'right' and what is 'wrong'?

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