Art loves a tragedyhttps://beta.indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/art-and-culture/art-loves-a-tragedy-5249314/

Art loves a tragedy

In Mehsampur, Kabir Singh Chowdhry crafts a film that has no time for labels but offers a glimpse into the ethics of filmmaking

Art loves a tragedy
Still from movie Mehsampur

There’s not much to the story,” says Kabir Singh Chowdhry, as he sips his cappuccino at Peche Mignon, the coffee shop at Novotel, Juhu. In both style and substance, the Paris-inspired astroturfed setting of our conversation is a far cry from Mehsampur in Punjab, where Chowdhry shot his genre-smashing film, Mehsampur. The 32-year-old multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker is being modest: there’s plenty that happens in his film, but not quite in the way one would expect it to. “Well, I’d initially set out to make a different film myself, so Mehsampur has been a bit of a detour,” says Chowdhry.

A few years ago, Chowdhry and Akshay Singh, his partner at their production house, Dark Matter Pictures, set out to Punjab to trace the journey of Amar Singh Chamkila, known as the “Elvis of Punjab”. One of the state’s most popular stage performers, Chamkila and his wife Amarjot were murdered in cold blood in Mehsampur, in March 1988, by unidentified gunmen; the case was never solved. “Chamkila’s music was catchy and controversial because he sang about the drug use and corruption in Punjab. We first travelled to Mehsampur to make Lal Pari, a film from the point of view of one of the assassins who killed Chamkila. I was thinking of a straight-on fictional piece, but the more I started digging into people’s lives, those who had been violently affected by the Khalistan movement that had taken over Punjab in the ’80s, I abandoned that idea. After seeing the scarred bodies of those who’d been tortured by the police, I knew I couldn’t work with fiction,” says Chowdhry.

He’d also been in touch with Chamkila’s associates, Kesar Singh Tikki and dholak player Lal Chand, who is the only survivor of the assassination and continues to live in the shadow of Chamkila’s tragic legacy. So when a producer offered Chowdhry a modest sum of Rs 3 lakh to make a film, he and Singh began work on a film that stubbornly defies labels.

Mehsampur sticks close to reality and Chowdhry’s experiences as the camera follows Devrath, a filmmaker from Mumbai, who travels to Punjab to research on Chamkila and Amarjot. He tracks down Lal Chand and Tikki, and ropes in a struggling actress (Navjot Randhawa) to play Amarjot; armed with a digicam, Devrath is intent on shooting everything, recreating every detail, so as to lend his film a certain kind of authenticity that will surpass another production house’s attempts at making a film about Chamkila. His ruthlessness drives his actors to the edge of sanity, but all Devrath cares about is getting the money shots.

Art loves a tragedy
Still from movie Mehsampur

“I wanted to make a film about what researching a subject for a film can do to a person; and how the camera can become an invasive object, and that the stories we want to tell usually are fed through somebody else’s trauma. We take over people’s lives and homes in the name of art,” says Chowdhry, who has made short films in the past. His 42-minute short, Good Morning, won the Grand Jury Award for the Best Narrative Short at the South Asian International Film Festival, 2011.

At the recently concluded Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, Mehsampur was described as a mockumentary, but Chowdhry disputes that as well. A single viewing of the film informs its audience that he intends to explore form over function; Mehsampur does not concern itself much with the Venn diagram that contains Cinéma vérité, observational cinema, and direct cinema. It is a snapshot of a state that once prospered and flourished, but has now become a wasteland; even then, its troubled past remains colourful and worthy of languid rumination.

After its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival 2018, Mehsampur has also been part of the official selection at the London Indian Film Festival and Melbourne Indian Film Festival 2018. At MAMI, the film won the Golden Gateway Award in the India Gold Competition category, surprising Chowdhry, Singh and their co-producers, Crawling Angel Films, ASR Films and Bohra Bros Pvt Ltd. “All the blood, sweat, tears obstacles we faced while making this suddenly seem worth it,” says Chowdhry, adding, “It is a rather mean little film about filmmaking so I’d wondered if an audience will be able to connect with it.”

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After its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival 2018, Mehsampur has also been part of the official selection at the London Indian Film Festival and Melbourne Indian Film Festival 2018. At MAMI, the film won the Golden Gateway Award in the India Gold Competition category, surprising Chowdhry, Singh and their co-producers, Crawling Angel Films, ASR Films and Bohra Bros Pvt Ltd. “All the blood, sweat, tears obstacles we faced while making this suddenly seem worth it,” says Chowdhry, adding, “It is a rather mean little film about filmmaking so I’d wondered if an audience will be able to connect with it.”

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