“It will definitely be a test of nerves” says Kabir Singh Chowdhry | Mehsampur
Pandolin had the pleasure of interviewing the director of the upcoming mockumentary on the story of Chamkila and Amarjot - "Mehsampur"
Director Kabir Singh Chowdhry’s ‘Mehsampur’ – a fascinating Punjabi meta-fiction mockumentary will have its India Premiere at the 20th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival With Star. Produced by Dark Matter Pictures’ and Crawling Angel Films’, the film which has been selected for the prestigious India Gold competition category at the festival is based on the tragic true story of the late famous Punjabi singer-composer Amar Singh Chamkila and his wife Amarjot. The duo was shot dead by militants in 1988 in
Mehsampur prior to a performance.
Kabir Singh Chowdhry is a multi-disciplinary artist and film director. In 2007, he won the ‘Passion For Cinema’ award for his one minute film Dolly. His 42 minute film Good Morning received the Grand Jury Award for the Best Narrative Short at the South Asian International Film Festival, 2011 in New York. He was awarded the HT Youth Icon Award for young achievers in North India. In December 2012, he participated in India’s first collaborative feature film The Last Act.
Festival (2017). His directorial feature Mehsampur is currently doing the festival
Mehsampur is an interesting amalgamation of biopic and documentary style of filmmaking that merges facts and fiction to tell the story of Devrath – a filmmaker who arrives in Punjab to research on the iconic duo of Amar Singh Chamkila and Amarjot. In the process, he drives a fading musician and a disturbed actress to the edge. The trailer of the film was launched recently.
1) Before we start, congratulations on having your film being selected for the India Gold Competition at Jio 20th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival this year! I’m also aware that it has premiered internationally at prestigious Film Festivals. How do you feel on getting such a response from the industry?
Thank you, little surprised I managed to get so far – was not even sure if I was making a film – felt more like I was playing a very cerebral prank with form.
Yes, we had a world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival and got good reviews which was quite overwhelming– as a creator one is always full of doubt about one’s abilities so it’s a nice feeling when you get appreciated.
2) The trailer of Mehsampur is a daring yet gripping one. The first shot itself kind of makes you mechanically sit back in your chair and straighten your spine. Tell us why you chose to make a film based on the story of the Chamkila and Amarjot.
I think it’s important to provoke with the work you put out there for it to have a greater shelf life.
Chamkila and Amarjot’s music is something I have grown up listening to in Punjab. It was also the music the truck drivers listened to, in fact more like opium for them – keeping them awake while they travelled the length and breadth of the country. It was also considered to be filthy music –with double meaning Punjabi lyrics – something which we as kids were not allowed to listen to.
Chamkila was an artist who got assassinated for his art – that too on his way to a performance in Mehsampur – this story stuck with me and my partner Akshay at Dark Matter Pictures. We started doing research all over Punjab.
During that process, I recorded a series of interviews and also visited many ‘Akhada’s’ (performance spaces) where the couple performed. Going to the homes of families who had been savaged by the atrocities of the police or knew the singer couple, I recognized how we, as artists, crassly barge into people’s homes, make them relive their dark memories, encourage them to reconstruct brutal moments, to get the material required for the film. This made me ponder over the role of an artist and his intrusiveness in search of information.
I wanted to capture these aspects of violation in “Mehsampur”, stripping away romantic notions of what it means to be a film maker. My starting premise was a basic idea of a story with some emotional beats, an imagined atmosphere, and a couple of images. I wanted to cast real people playing themselves as I had perceived or interpreted them with my writer.
3) As I was reading about the story of the film – Lal Chand who is said to be a survivor from the encounter was in the know of the film being made and premiered at the festival. How was your experience interacting with him?
Lal Chand ended up playing a fictional version of Lal Chand in my film, he was the only one that survived the assassination attempt.
My experience working with him was great- this film would not have been possible had it not been for Lal Chand, not sure if he would feel the same way – towards the end of the shoot Lal said that if he saw a film shoot happening in front of him, he will take the longest way around to avoid it.
He was exhausted by the end of it, but a strange spirit of Chamkila’s ghost kept him going. MAMI will be the first festival he will attend so it’s gonna be exciting to see his reaction to the audience and the film.
4) Tremendous amounts of research must have gone into the making of the film. But it isn’t just stated facts, it shows elements of creativity that may or may not truly be fiction – could you share some insight on the process?
For me it became a philosophical question as the lines between the real and the fictional overlapped and blurred and what emerged was an alternative reality, part fictional and part real.
Every character in the film is playing a fictionalized version of themselves, and seems to shift between the real and the imagined. The characters of the old singer and the manager are ‘real’ but are invited to ‘perform’, adding bits and pieces to heighten the dramatic impact.
Most of the characters in the film, the ‘real’ and ‘the created were non-professionals. The film’s protagonist is a film director filming his research with his handycam. Filming his own film within our film. While making the film, I started reflecting on my own actions as a film director in a way that I had not introspected before. To evaluate the moral muscle of ‘what it means to be a film maker’ imagining lives, far removed from ours, entering into terrain that we do not belong to, of appropriation, became ethical questions that I had to confront and question. This film digs deep into the complexity of the human condition and the nature and value of compassion.
5) Did you face any challenges during the making of the film?
The main challenge was to extract performance out of the Non Actors, and just wait patiently to get the right emotional beats out of them – but once we did I think they gave us gold dust on the table.
For film makers like us, who have limited resources and finances the main challenges come during the post production of the film, which can get very expensive.
Most of the time was spent borrowing, stealing and begging for money from everyone we could think of, in and out of the industry.
6) What kind of a response are you expecting from the Indian audiences and the Indian film industry since this is the films first Indian premiere?
It will definitely be a test of nerves –hope no one pokes their eyes out….it’s just a film.
7) When can we expect the next gem of your making?
I am working on a couple of things-not sure if any of them are gems: a body horror about a serial killer titled ‘Sector Skeleton’ and then there is an existential thriller titled ‘Lal Pari’– whose research got me started with Mehsampur in the first place.
Watch the trailer of ‘Mehsampur’ right here –