MAMI Film Festival 2018: The absurdist rigour of Mehsampur
The film on Punjabi folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila upends genre conventions with absurdist wit
Kabir Singh Choudhary's Mehsampur, which premiered at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival on Sunday, is an absurdist takedown of the filmmaking process and its farcical fidelity to truth. The film starts out as a docu-drama—about a filmmaker shooting a docu-drama—but soon grazes into a misty borderland between fact and fiction. The crux of it revolves around assassinated Punjabi folksinger Amar Singh Chamkila, whose 'innuendo-laden' but immensely popular lyrics drew the distaste of religious and Khalistani outfits in the 80s. The title, Mehsampur, alludes to the place of Chamlika's assassination—a village in the Jalandhar district of Punjab—to which aspiring filmmaker Devrat (Devrat Joshi) ventures out in the present day, hoping to recreate the trauma of Chamkila's mysterious death and achieve what he describes as a 'cinematic breakthrough'.
Mehsampur is unique in its puzzling juggleries with genre and form, but also conventional and accessible in its approach to humour One mysterious character, who appears as a lovelorn bar singer and later as thief, thoroughly embodies the deadpan absurdism of the film. "I am not sure if I've made a film... this was just a prank I was trying to play," Choudhary admitted while introducing Mehsampur to the audience. The screening was also attended by the Navjot Randhawa, who plays an aspiring actor in the film, and by Lal Singh and Kesar Singh Tikki—two of Chamkila's closest colloborators who play versions of themselves in the film.
During the Q&A session, when asked about the conception of Mehsampur, Chowdhry recalled, "I was researching a completely fictional film set in Punjab exploring the murder of Chamlika and the whole Khalistani movement. I stayed in a Gurudwara for months and also with Kesar Singh and Lal Chand. Based on our research, we arrived at a script called Lal Pari. However, it so happened that someone gave me a few lakh rupees to make a short film. So I decided to make something around the subject of Chamkila, which became Mehsampur... because we had to spend that money."
Fascinating though Chamkila's story is, Mehsampur reveals very little information about the disruptive and smiley-faced Dalit singer—glimpsed in fussy soundless footage that appears sporadically in the film. "I did not wanted to put all of that (Chamkila's life). Instead, I wanted spaces and characters to communicate his essense to the audience. That was my intention," Chowdhury summarised, adding that he plans to make a more factual rigorous film on Chamkila very soon. "It will be a period film, which requires more money. If I get that kind of money, I'll definitely make one," he promised.