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Once sage and wide-eyed disciple, AR Rahman and Imtiaz Ali have drawn closer over the years. It is now an easy, open friendship, they reassure us, as we settle down to discuss their latest collaboration, Amar Singh Chamkila. Few prospects in contemporary Hindi cinema are as readily exciting as an Imtiaz-Rahman team-up. Their last was Tamasha (2015), a well-loved romance with an enduring soundtrack, and before that Highway (2014) and the angsty, iconic Rockstar (2011). Like the ringleader of a thrilling heist, Imtiaz has assembled the old crew for Chamkila — besides Rahman, lyricist Irshad Kamil and singer Mohit Chauhan have jammed on the album.

Set in the tumultuous 80s, the musical biopic stars Diljit Dosanjh as legendary Punjabi folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila. Parineeti Chopra essays Chamkila’s wife and singing partner Amarjot. Known for his frank, playful lyrics that cast an uncanny spell over the masses, Chamkila was slain, along with Amarjot, by unidentified gunmen in Mehsampur in Punjab in 1988. Their deaths have remained a mystery, though one theory holds they were killed by Sikh separatists.

Here, Rahman and Imtiaz discuss their combustible partnership and finding the sound of Chamkila.

Excerpts from an interview….

Mr. Rahman, you recently described Amar Singh Chamkila as a ‘very naughty picture’ from Imtiaz. Could you elaborate?

ARR: A sense of mischief or naughtiness is there in all of us. Without humour, life will be boring. When Imtiaz approached me for this film, I told him Chamkila’s songs already existed. What am I going to do? So I came up with the idea of making it like a Broadway musical, with people passing comments on Chamkila’s life and music like they do today on YouTube. All the gossip could become a song.

Imtiaz Ali: Irshad Kamil, who is from Punjab, had exposed me to naughty Punjabi lyrics over the years. Interestingly, most of them turned out to be female songs. For instance, the track Naram Kaalja is derived from an old traditional Punjabi song that goes, mera naram kaalja tarpe (‘my soft heart quivers’). I liked it because Chamkila too sang naughty and mischievous songs that explained why he was so popular with women. Women, even more than men, have always enjoyed ribaldry in traditional music. This is true not only of Punjab but many places in the world, especially in wedding songs.

ARR: Rukmani Rukmani from Roja (1992) is another example.

Imtiaz: Yes, It has very bold lyrics. Shaadi ke baad kya kya hua/kaun haraa kaun jeeta (What all happened after the wedding / who lost, who won?)

The team of ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’

The team of ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’

What was the process of researching the tunes for Chamkila?

ARR: We invited musicians from Punjab to my studio in Mumbai. There were four male singers and 8-9 female singers. We were jamming and having fun for a couple of days. I sampled a lot of traditional instruments like the alghoza and the tumbi. Chamkila’s music is in Punjabi and it’s quite esoteric. We knew we had to broaden the span of the musicality and sound for a film of this nature. But Chamkila’s original songs we have left untampered and pure.

For me, Punjabi music is not just bhangra. I have heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan saab’s qawwalis and old archival recordings of Punjabi and Sindhi songs. Someone played me Chamkila’s recordings eight or nine years ago when they wanted to make a film on him. There’s also Sunrise Radio in London, who have a lot of old Punjabi music. I used to fast early in the morning during my time in London listening to Sunrise Radio. So the album of Chamkila is a culmination of all these influences.

There’s also this element of live recording that you guys have introduced.

Imtiaz: When we were shooting Rockstar, we used to play almost the entire song — Sadda Haq, let’s say — and have Ranbir Kapoor and the rest of the cast performing to it. For the audience, the experience was as though they were watching a concert. The difference of course was that the music was pre-recorded and the actors were miming it. This time, there’s a big jump because we have Diljit and Parineeti actually singing their portions with accompanying musicians. It is a sync-sound approach to recording music. Of course, Rahman sir had trained them beforehand to build the necessary confidence.

Parineeti Chopra as Amarjot Kaur, Diljit Dosanjh as Amar Singh Chamkila

Parineeti Chopra as Amarjot Kaur, Diljit Dosanjh as Amar Singh Chamkila
| Photo Credit:
MUBEEN SIDDIQUI / Netflix

ARR: My music producer, Hiral Viradia, and the rest of the team were present on set throughout the process. The technology has improved so much to do live recordings. There are proper training centres and all these new gadgets have come in. Technicians and engineers are now more aware of this stuff. Unlike before, where everything’s come in distorted and you go, ‘Oh my God, we have to rerecord this’.

I have to go back to the Rockstar album for a bit. There’s a song I feel is criminally under-discussed. It’s Aur Ho, an intense rock ballad that unfolds when Jordan (Ranbir Kapoor) is in Prague and pursuing his old love, who is now married.

Imtiaz: We used to call it ‘heartbeat’. The pulsing of the track was such. Rahman sir might have labelled it ‘heartbeat’ which became the visual inspiration for the song at that time.

ARR: I recall having a flute which was almost like a mantra becoming very dark.

Imtiaz: It was a terrible ordeal emotionally in the way that it was an overwhelming experience to be in that song. The involvement that we had while shooting… I think I have overexposed myself to this song and this song to me. This is a song that I can’t hear anymore. Actually, I was recently sampling through some of the old songs and I pressed ‘Aur Ho’ and the intro came up. I just had to shut it immediately.

How do you guys communicate while creating music? Is it very technical or more philosophical and abstract?

Imtiaz: Rahman sir uses quite casual, ordinary language. The larger communication is through the tunes itself. When good music is playing, everything is understood. Music is something that can’t be explained in words or symbols. If he use words, I might understand something else entirely.

ARR: If we are having a jam session and I have an idea, I just play it to him and he responds. I don’t need to tell him I am going to use a D flat ninth or sharp 13th (laughs). He has this amazing ability to spot melodies that vibe with the movie. Personally, I don’t like to be tied to the theme of a movie. I like to go wild and see how my directors react, be it Mr. Mani Ratnam or Imtiaz. Mani Ratnam sometimes comes back to me two months later and says, “Hey, you played something no? Can I hear it again?” When I say he didn’t respond to it the first time, he’ll go, “No I didn’t understand it then.”

Imtiaz, Chamkila is being hailed as your comeback after two commercial-minded duds (Jab Harry Met Sejal, Love Aaj Kal). Is this a return to your roots as a filmmaker?

Imtiaz: Well, we shall see (laughs). Making this film was a fresh experience for me. For the first time, I wasn’t writing from imagination but from research. Instead of dreaming up a scene, the fun for me was to discover it from the conversations I was having with people. The turmoil in Punjab in the 1980s had a devastating impact on Chamkila’s life. For me as a filmmaker, to not opine or comment on it is one thing but to not know it is unpardonable. I spoke to lots of people about 1984 and the various controversies and sides to that chapter of history.

A still from ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’

A still from ‘Amar Singh Chamkila’
| Photo Credit:
MUBEEN SIDDIQUI / Netflix

ARR: I feel Imtiaz has reinvented himself. As an artist, if one does the same thing again and again, they will have more trouble doing something fresh. But if you change the whole placement of it and take your artistry and energy to another place, it forces you to think differently. That’s when many unusual things come together and it becomes refreshing for the audience. The moment they start predicting you, you become boring.

The story of Chamkila makes one wonder… is music inextricable from the time and place it emerges from?

ARR: Music can build societies, it can also kill societies. It’s just the energy that music generates. Take the 1960s, for instance, and what The Beatles did with Imagine. In my life, in the first ten years of my career, I had a song like Maa Tujhe Salaam, which instilled a sense of pride about being Indian. Then in 2001, there were the 9/11 attacks and the whole decade was spent in the effort of trying to heal the world. From 2010-20, post the Oscar win for Jai Ho, it was a different era. It was a time of individual excellence, with Indians becoming big CEOs and global leaders. And now, finally, we are in the age of AI. My thing is, how can we use AI to address the failures of past generations? Can it be used to alleviate poverty? In music, too, AI can be an influence of good.

Is there an aspect of life beyond music that you guys bond well on?

Imtiaz: Except for finances, we bond on everything else including food and parenting.

ARR: We are actually working on a project together. It’s like a series of… something that’s very special and tough to crack. We are still trying to figure it out. Unfortunately, we cannot share anything about it yet.

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