He never studied filmmaking, but ended up making one of the most important films that need to be watched this year. Mehsampur is a movie based on singer Amar Singh chamkila, who was killed along with his wife and stage partner Amarjot on March 8, 1988. Its debutant director, Kabir, takes us through both the dark and bright bits of recreating the staggering real life story of violence-ridden Punjab.
To begin with—could you please tell me a little about yourself and your growing up years?
I grew up in Chandigarh—my growing up years were surrounded by theatre and the arts since my mother is a theatre director. My house was constantly buzzing with musicians, actors and creative individuals.Back then I wanted to be an artist since I thought I was good with the brush and pen. later this changed as I started studying Anthropology at St.Xavier’s, Bombay, which led me to pursue a career in Visual Anthropology.
What drew you to filmmaking in the first place?
While studying Anthropology, my girlfriend at the time had a handy-cam which I started toying with—staying in the hostel I started making short films with my hostel-mates as the subjects. In the evenings we would sit around watching what I had shot through the day, and everyone seemed entertained.
This is when I started thinking that filmmaking seems to embody all the other art forms—poetry, music, painting, dance, sculpture, architecture all in this one space, and all these can be multiplied through film.
Chamkila’s story, although important, is set in the 90s. What was it about the subject that drew you towards it in the first place and kept you holding on?
What really drew me to Chamkila’s story was that he was shot dead with his entire crew on stage—knowing the fact that his provocative songs were getting him death threats he continued to sing, he had to without fear. It was this that drew me to him in the first place—and as I started doing more research many other things came up which kept my enthusiasm alive.
I read that you almost made the film in 2015 but had to drop it because of lack of funds; has the script evolved since then?
The journey of the film started while I was researching about Chamkila and Amarjot, legendary singers from punjab who were either assassinated by militants during the insurgency in the 80s in punjab, or by rival singers, jealous of their escalating popularity. Both theories are contested and are to date mired in uncertainty.
The research was for a film titled Lal Pari or ‘Red Angel’, and during my travels in punjab, I met many families who knew the singer duo and were familiar with the militancy during that period. They shared with me their reading of the situation and the fear and uncertainty that existed .
During that process, I recorded a series of interviews and also visited many akhadas [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 recognised 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 filmmaker. 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 whom I had met during the research for Lal Pari. I wanted them to play themselves as I had perceived or interpreted them with my writer.
How challenging was it to garner funds?
The reason the film took us three years to make was because I was constantly short on funds—most of our time was spent begging and borrowing money from people.
Whenever we would run out of money I would put up a desperate post on Facebook and somehow garner people’s sympathy to give us more money to take small baby steps towards completion.
When did you decide you wanted to make this film an interplay of different genres?
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 fictionalised 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—there was another layer of someone filming us filming the film, which we eventually scrapped—becauuse even though the possibilities in this process may have been endless, it may have complicated the narrative further. 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.
When did you decide you wanted to shoot film inside a film? Did this happen when you reached on location or was it scripted in this way?
Well I think I have answered this question already in a way on how the film Mehsampur came about—but I was inspired by a few things to make the film the way it has turned out—one was the documentary by Adam curtis called Bitter Lake, which basically uses archives and finds patterns in those archives to tell a story of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the U.S. and the role it plays in the war in Afghanistan. And the second was the Christopher Doyle Journal on the making of Wong Kar Wai’s Happy together.
What are you trying to communicate through this film?
Mehsampur is a film that would be difficult for me to define or position. It is a documentary, or a fictionalized version of a reality that already existed but was filtered through my imagination in the process of its filming. It could be seen as a film within a film within a film. Many approaches have been used: from the experimental to the documentary to the using of archival material, along with the mixing of real characters with fictional characters. In an attempt to rekindle a traumatic memory, a filmmaker pushes a fading musician and a disturbed actress to the edge—this is the simplest way I can describe it. I would refrain from using words like hybrid to describe the film and would rather use the term cinematic non-fiction.
Can you tell me briefly the festivals the film has travelled to and the awards you’ve won?
The film has travelled to Sydney Film Festival, London Indian Film Festival, Docs Against Gravity in Poland, Melbourne Indian FF, Vancouver International South Asian FF, Mumbai Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize in the India Gold section, Kazhcha-NIV Indie Film Fest.
What’s ahead from here?
Life looks a bit better, people have started taking me a bit more seriously—but the struggle continues as I am working on my next film and the cycle for looking for funds continues.
Text Hansika Lohani Mehtani