LIFF 2018 Special Review: Mehsampur

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London 22 June – 6.15pm Picturehouse Central, 23 June – 8.30pm Cineworld Wembley

One of the pleasures of film festivals is the exposure to films that one might not normally have access to, or that sit a little bit outside one’s wheelhouse. Director Kabir Singh Chowdhry’s Mehsampur (titled after the Punjabi village in which, as an intertitle card tells us, was the place where the popular 1980s Punjabi folk-singing duo Chamkila and Amarjot, whose innuendo-laden lyrics often offended religious groups and separatists, were killed in 1988) traces the journey of filmmaker Devrath, who heads to Punjab to conduct research for a film he wants to make about the once popular duo.

The real world and the fictional one collide, lines between the two are blurred, as filmmaker Chowdhry follows filmmaker Devrath, a fictional filmmaker making contact with real life figures in Ludhiana who knew the controversial singer, such as Chamkila’s manager, Kesar Singh Tikki, his dhokla player, Lal Chand, and Surinder Sonia – who sang duets with Chamkila before he eventually teamed up with Amarjot. Devrath seeks these people out, but we realize he really hasn’t done much homework. When Sonia asks if he’s heard her duets with Chamkila, he tells her he hasn’t, something easily achieved by searching on YouTube, for example. Devrath infuriates me even as Chowdhry compels me to keep watching.

And though Mehsampur purports to be about finding out about Chamkila, we never really learn anything of substance, as the film circles around the edges of the subject. Devrath seems to have done little real research on the people he attempts to interview for his film, relying on prurient questions and superficial information, on spurious re-enactments to get to the heart of what he thinks of as his “cinematic breakthrough”.

Mehsampur is at its best when it sticks to the subject of Chamkila, as ephemeral a subject as that is. That said, little details, like Manpreet (the actress Devrath meets in a hotel bar) asking Lal Chand how Amarjot wore her chunni (which has him arranging it for her in the back of Devrath’s car), and Lal Chand commenting, upon arrival in Mehsampur on the events of the day Chamkila and Amarjot were killed – noting that he, too, had been shot in the thigh as he tried to get away from the militants – these small details shared by Lal Chand are incredibly moving. And stand in irony once again, because as Devrath goes around filming with the caretaker of the venue at which they were killed, Lal Chand tells his stories to no one in particular, and Devrath continues to focus on the most trivial of details – like what the caretaker served Chamkila to eat that day.

As Devrath continues his research, we realize that he’s always one step behind a big film crew from Mumbai making a film entitled “Chamkila the Legend”. So we have a film, within a film, within a film, each defying film genres and blurring the boundaries of film. Which film about Chamkila is the “real” film? Which one will tell us Chamkila’s story? Will any of them capture the legendary singer?

Part way through his journey of discovery about Chamkila, when Devrath first meets Manpreet, she is reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and she shares a quote from it with Devrath: “The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.”

Director Chowdhry’s film (written by Akshay Singh), occasionally tried my patience (especially in its latter portions on the road to Mehsampur), but I also found it compelling viewing. In in its own odd, absurd, occasionally surreal way, Mehsampur gives us fragmented glimpses of Chamkila through the eyes – those “eyes…of a hundred others” — of those who knew him, or who loved his music, and who still love his music. The only way, perhaps, to learn about Chamkila, is to view all of these representations of him.

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