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In his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde opined, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Kabir Singh Chowdhry’s debut feature Mehsampur blurs Wilde’s equation with a mockumentary style that leaves the audience guessing about which characters are real or created, and where the line between life and art even lies.
The film explores the legend of iconic folk singer Amar Singh Chamkila and his wife Amarjot, who were gunned down, allegedly by militants, ahead of a concert in 1988 in the town of Mehsampur in Punjab. Their murders remain unsolved to this day. At the time, Punjab was ravaged by the Khalistan militancy movement, which was demanding an independent state.
But as Chowdhry explains, “The film is more about the ghost of Chamkila and the people who were around him.” Using a film-within-a-film premise, Mehsampur revolves around cash-strapped, self-obsessed filmmaker Devrath (played by Devrath Joshi, who is also a filmmaker in real life), who is researching the life of Chamkila, which leads him to meets the late singer’s associates: percussionist Lal Chand (who survived the assassination), former manager-singer Kesar Singh Tikki and aging actress-singer Surinder Sonia.
As the film embarks on a stylistically surreal journey — turning these real-life characters into semi-fictional versions of themselves while introducing Devrath’s love interest Manpreet (Navjot Randhawa) — it is easy to see why Chowdhry says his cinematic influences include surrealists such as David Lynch, in addition to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Stanley Kubrick and Swedish director Roy Andersson.
Chowdhry, however, says Mehsampur was more so inspired by British director Adam Curtis’ 2015 documentary Bitter Lake, which examined the history between Western politics and Islam and how it resulted in the long-running conflicts in Afghanistan. “That film took archival material and looked for patterns to tell a story,” explains Chowdhry, who says he spent over six months in Punjab researching for his film.
“Through that process, I was just feeding into other people’s traumas and trying to relive a past that they didn’t want to [talk about] … after a while, I didn’t have the emotional capacity to take in all the stories,” he adds.
The film initially started as a fictional project, Laal Pari, scripted by Akshay Singh, but when it came to auditioning actors, Chowdhry says “they came across as mechanical … we couldn’t find Lal Chand, Tikki and Sonia,” which led to the casting of the real-life figures. Since he had developed a “deep friendship” with Chamkila’s associates, Chowdhry says he gave them “a general idea of the film’s story and waited for them to give emotional beats to the [piece].”
Which perhaps explains why the film opens with a curious disclaimer: “Any resemblance to actual events, to persons living or dead, is not unintentional.”
Playing the role of an aspiring actress, Navjot Randhawa, who studied acting in France, drew from her own real-life experiences. “Her being a struggling actor is also part of her reality,” says Chowdhry.
Mehsampur has screened at festivals including Sydney and Poland’s Millennium Docs Against Gravity.
As the pic makes its Indian premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival, Chowdhry says this would be the first time Lal Chand and Tikki, who have been invited for the screening, will see it. “While I am looking forward to their feedback, I am also a bit nervous as to how they will respond,” he says.
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