Mumbai, 05 Nov 2018 9:00 IST
Fictional characters meet real characters in this bizzare meta-movie on making a documentary on the assasination of Punjab's iconic and controversial singer Amar Singh Chamkila.
At the question and answer session post the screening of Mehsampur, director Kabir Singh Chowdhry said, "This is a prank, not a film."
If you go with a blank slate, Mehsampur, a mockumentary about making a documentary, does feel like a big prank on the audience.
The film kicks off with documentary filmmaker Devrath (played by Devrath Joshi, also a filmmaker in real life), who is researching the life of the iconic Punjabi folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila, landing up in Mehsampur and then Ludhiana to make a documentary.
He meets the late singer's associates — percussionist Lal Chand (who was also a witness to the assassination), aging actress-singer Surinder Sonia and former manager Kesar Singh Tikki.
The cash-strapped Joshi has another challenge on his hands — there's also a big camera crew in town, shooting a film on the same subject.
Intially, you would think that Joshi is the director of Mehsampur too and has put himself in the forefront like many documentary filmmakers do, but as you move forward you realise he is actually the protagonist of the film and not the director.
Chamkila and his wife and singing partner Amarjot were gunned down, allegedly by militants, ahead of a concert in 1988 in Mehsampur, Punjab. Their murders remain unsolved and shrouded in mystery.
At the time, Punjab was ravaged by the Khalistan movement that demanded an independent state. While his supporters felt that his music, which took on subjects like extra-marital relationships, drinking and drug use, often laced with sexual innuendos, was an honest commentary on Punjabi culture, his detractors felt that his music was obscene and showed Punjab in a bad light. He thus developed a controversial reputation over the years. But none of this really makes it to the mockumentary.
Those who aren't aware of Chamkila's story may find themselves a little lost and unable to engage with the film's eccentric format initally, but soon you realise that it doesn't matter who the subject of the documentary within the documentary is.
Chowdhry mocks the various tropes of documentary filmmaking and the process the crew goes through — the general scepticism of the people being questioned, use of archival videos, bribing people with whiskey bottles and cash for help, the invasion of privacy, pushing people to relive the painful past, to shoot a dead animal and even poop to show realism and the frustrations of a self-obessed filmmaker.
In one hilarious scene, Devrath asks Tikki to reenact the scene (a device used by filmmakers quite often though it's generally done by actors and not the real people involved) when he got drunk and pelted stones at Chamkila's office for ousting him from the Canada tour and replacing him with someone else.
There are several self-referential scenes and several bizzare sequences, especially the constant cuts to random images that in no way relate to what's happening in the film, perhaps inspired by Chowdhry's surrealistic influences. One of the character's dope trip portions also add to the jerkiness of the narrative.
You will also be left wondering which characters are real and which ones aren't. Most characters are basically semi-fictional version of themselves, barring perhaps Devrath and Manpreet (Navjot Randhawa), an aspiring actress he meets while in Ludhiana. Devrath and Manpreet play fictional characters who interact with real characters of Lal Chand, Surinder Sonia and Kesar Singh Tikki, who sportingly take on comic versions of themselves.
Chowdhry is making fun of his own experience of making a documentary film on Chamkila, which perhaps took a lot out of him. He takes the tragedy of the singer's death and turns it into a comedy of errors.
Mehsampur is an outrageous meta-movie. And Chowdhry's disclaimer at the beginning, 'any resemblance to actual events, to persons living or dead, is not unintentional" should have been enough of a hint at what to expect. The grotesque end though comments on the exploitative nature of documentary filmmaking and that is perhaps the point of all this bizarreness.
Mehsampur was screened at the 20th Mumbai Film Festival on 31 October 2018.
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