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Amar Singh Chamkila and Amarjot

A tale of Love ,

Music &Censorship

Written By Muskan Dhar

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

“Should we separate art from the artist?” 

A question that has been asked and debated as much in academic circles among theorists of cinema/media studies as in the filmmaking communities. This article tries to take this debate a step further. What have these binaries between art and the artist served us or rather why should we, as an audience, separate our iconic actors/artists from their art to understand them in a vacuum? Is it possible in this new digital era to view our artists using a well-rounded praxis where we understand them and their art as a product of a creative amalgamation of aesthetics and society’s treatment of their socially and politically bodied selves. 

This piece aims to unravel the world of art and its inherently close relationship with society and the local/global economy by using a brilliantly made film ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’.

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Amar Singh Chamkila (2024), starring Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra ( as the iconic duet Amar Singh Chamkila and Amarjot Kaur) and directed by Imtiaz Ali is a drama/musical based on the legendary lives of Amar Singh Chamkila and his partner, both professionally and in personal life, Amarjot Kaur. ‘Ali’s film brings to the fore the curiously intertwined nature of music, morality, and politics in Punjab. Viewed from a longer-term historical lens, Chamkila’s life story and music are part of the distinctly gendered and caste-inflected nature of Punjabi music-making’.

Amar Singh Chamkila was a prominent Dalit folk singer and along with his talented partner Amarjot Kaur who was from a Jatt family (dominant caste that controls land and politics of the state), he ruled the brimming listening markets of the Punjabi music scene of the 1980s fueled by the new inexpensive ‘cassette culture’. Chamkila’s songs were oriented towards verbal recitation like the Punjabi folkloric traditions and women’s folk songs. His songs were mostly duets (with a female singer) sung in a conversational, back and forth banter style of singing/performance. These performances happened in akharas- open-air live musical concerts in rural Punjab. Their songs had references to trucks and truck drivers as his popularity among the working class population of 1980s Punjab was unmatched. This is not to say that he wasn’t popular among the middle class and the upper class. His popularity among the Savarna(s) was closeted as most of the reformists and the general atmosphere of post 1984 Punjab was primarily focused on matching an idea of state centred around educated middle class and upper caste chastity. Hence, sexual transgressions within and outside the household had no space in this idea of Punjab which according to religious/political authorities had to produce ‘chaste’ and ‘pure’ men and women. 

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Chamkila and Amarjot’s songs were often criticised for being ‘ashleel’/ sexually provocating due to which their music was constantly under scrutiny by ‘liberal’ media, journalists and Punjabi religious authorities. There is a crucial scene in the film where Chamkila avoids eye contact with a female journalist (Sahiba Bali) due to her western attire. She calls out his hypocrisy and questions Chamkila (Diljit Dosanjh) about the sexually lewd lyrics of his songs and how his lyrics portray/objectify women to which Chamkila replies that ‘dekha yeh sab hai madam, aisa baatein sunni hai. Har kisi ki na sahi-galat sochne ki aukaat nahi hoti madam, meri toh nahi hai. Mujh jaise ko toh bas jaise-taise zinda rehna hota hai, mai chance nahi le sakta ji. Aap samaj nahi paoge, mai bahut chota insan hu madam, muje vahi gaane banane hote hai jo log pasand kare, varna mai Khatam!’ (This is what I have seen madam, this is what I have heard. Not everyone can afford to think right and wrong. Some people just have to survive. I am a very ordinary man. I have to make the songs that people will like otherwise my career will be over).

This scene brings us to the question of who is/was Chamkila and Amarjot’s audience? The songs sung by the duet were bringing the forbidden everyday in the public sphere, from from ‘illicit sexual relations both within (‘Sikhar Dupehre Nahaundi Si’, ‘Chaska Pai Gaya Saali Da’) and outside (‘Bapu Sada Gum Ho Gaya’) the family, to premarital sex, drug, and alcohol abuse (‘Pehle Lalkaare Naal’, ‘Sharabi Banke’)’. Although most of the audience physically present infront of Chamkila and Amarjot in the akharas were men, the women often ran up to the roofs of their houses in large groups to listen to the duet. He was popularly known as the ‘Roof Breaker’ (Kotha Dhau Kalakaar) as so many women flocked the roof that the roofs would cave and break! 

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Chamkila and Amarjot “combined the humour, playfulness, and a forbidden sensuality common to a much longer history of popular folksong of Punjab, whether those found in qissas or story-songs performed by rural mirasis (Punjab’s caste of genealogist-musician-bards), or women’s folklore and wedding songs (including the ‘joking’ genre of devar-bhabhi or jija-saali songs popular across north India) performed in women-only spaces, or during carnivalesque festivals like Holi. As with these songs, themes of sexual excess, innuendo, and desire dominate Chamkila’s lyrics”. It is said that they would do 366 shows in 365 days!


The couple was assassinated on March 8, 1988 in Punjab as they stepped out of their car and were about to start another show. Such killings of musicians and artists across Punjab and in the Indian nation-state prompt new questions for academicians, film enthusiasts and filmmakers; one of the important questions being: Who decides what the public should listen to? It is also crucial to perhaps engage with the question of what is ‘appropriate art’ in the creative industry and the differences it beholds with subject to each artist, especially artists who come from marginalized communities. Chamkila and Amarjot’s struggle for success and their eventual fate as artists is deeply rooted in their love for music and rhythm, and in their resistance towards caste and gender norms prevalent in the society.


Muskan Dhar is a researcher/writer based out of Goa. Her research interests span across themes of memory, sexualities, South Asian cinema and resistance movements. Her fondest memories of South Asian cinema reside in the drawing room of her house where she watched films like Do Bigha Zameen on Doordarshan with her mother.

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