Thought Box



by Sharad Raj May 5 2024, 5:38 pm Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins, 50 secs

Towards the non-bourgeoise tales from screen and stage: Amar Singh Chamkila and Lavani ke Rang are explored here by filmmaker Sharad Raj

The disparity between the musical genres of Amar Singh Chamkila's Punjabi songs and Lavani from Maharashtra is stark. While Chamkila, dubbed the "Elvis of Punjab," was a pop sensation known for his sexually charged lyrics, Lavani stands as a centuries-old traditional folk art deeply rooted in Maharashtra's cultural heritage. Despite their distinct origins, both share a commonality in their rustic essence and widespread popularity among the masses. They both defy societal norms, challenging conservative dominant-caste values and bourgeois sensibilities, often deemed provocative by certain segments of society.

Chamkila's compositions were overtly sexual, often featuring Sonia and later his wife Amarjot as partners, granting both genders a significant presence in his performances, albeit with Chamkila's dominance in the limelight. In contrast, Lavani showcases female performers predominantly, supported by male musicians and songwriters, where the finesse and sensuality of the women artists ignite the stage. However, Lavani transcends mere eroticism, encompassing themes of spirituality, socio-political commentary, and a diverse array of subjects, offering nuanced variations within the genre.

While Chamkila eventually adopted a more religious tone under pressure from Punjab's social and religious authorities, both he and Lavani have recently been portrayed in separate artistic mediums—cinema and theatre—prompting discussions about their similarities and differences that extend beyond their respective forms of expression.


Writer-director: Bhushan Korgaonkar, Artists: Pushpa Satarkar, Gauri Jadhav, Latabai Waikar, Shraddha Nagarkar, Chandrakant Lakhe, Vinayak Javale, Sumit Kudalkar, Akshay Malvankar, Shakuntalabai Nagarkar and Geetanjali Kulkarni.

On a Friday afternoon, the typically posh enclave of Prithvi Theatre in Juhu, Mumbai, renowned for its star-studded plays, found itself inundated with a rustic Marathi-speaking crowd, interspersed with middle-class patrons like myself. This revered bastion of Mumbai theatre, where the essence of Becket, Shakespeare, and Mohan Rakesh permeates the walls, where Edward Albee and Jean Genet engage in an absurdist dialogue with the audience, witnessing unprecedented candour. As we entered the theatre, anticipation hung in the air, heightened by the presence of musicians taking their positions.

The performance commenced with a lengthy musical overture, the rhythmic beats of dholki and peti harmonizing with the tabla. For the initial ten minutes, there were no actors on stage, just the resounding echo of percussion and melody—a bold departure from convention. Then, in classic Lavani style, Geetanjali Kulkarni emerged to elucidate the nuances of Lavani and what lay in store for us. Her introduction, infused with playful innuendos and uninhibited body language, elicited a chorus of whistles, exclamations, and applause from the audience.

From the outset, it was evident that this would be a wholly unique experience, far removed from the sombre silence of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" or the solemn readings of Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto by Naseeruddin Shah and family. Gradually, the atmosphere morphed into a carnival-like celebration as Pushpa Satarkar, Gauri Jadhav, and their troupe took the stage. Catcalls and revelry ensued in tandem with the performers' infectious vivacity and energy. Even the typically reserved "Fabindia crowd" in attendance soon cast off their inhibitions, joining in the spirited revelry that transformed the theatre into a vibrant jalsa (celebration).

As Geetanjali, akin to a sutradhar, unravelled the intricate layers of Lavani, what became apparent was the embodiment of freedom—the uninhibited spirit with which Lavani performers engage with their craft. This manifestation of freedom transcends psycho-sexual, spiritual, and social boundaries, defying middle-class and hypocritical dominant-caste norms. From my limited exposure to Lavani, it was evident that these women were truly empowered. This is not to disregard the historical exploitation Lavani artists have endured over time, but rather to underscore the essence of Lavani: empowered freedom.

Geetanjali emphasized the autonomy these women hold over their bodies, including the choice of partners and reproductive rights. In Lavani, the decision to keep a child is solely the mother's, and the child is given her name—a departure from patriarchal conventions. The characters portrayed by these artists celebrate themselves unabashedly, transcending traditional stage decorum and resonating directly with our sensual selves.

However, this abandonment of inhibitions remains incomplete if the audience remains entrenched in traditional bourgeois moulds. Yet, on that Friday afternoon, spurred by the rustic members of the audience, we gradually shed our inhibitions, transforming the experience into a true utsav (festival). It is only when Lavani performers and audiences are in sync that the essence of Lavani, like any folk form, is fully realized. The breaking of the fourth wall, metaphorically speaking, enriches the Lavani experience, transcending the confines of drawing-room dramas and academic elitism.

Lavani is not merely a performance; it is a visceral, transcendental experience. Hence, it is no surprise that the audience joined the performers for the final wrap, blurring the lines between performer and rasik (audience), erasing all remnants of duality.   

As mentioned earlier, Lavani encompasses more than just its overtly sexual aspect, known as Shringari Lavani; it also delves into the spiritual realm, referred to as Nirguni Lavani. In Eastern traditions, these two facets often intertwine, with differences primarily lying in their presentation. Furthermore, Lavani serves as a platform for social critique, as exemplified in the performance of Lavani Ka Rang.

Caste dynamics significantly influence Lavani, with performers and composers often hailing from different castes, mirroring the complex interplay of caste hierarchy and gender relations among its patrons. Additionally, Lavani navigates the folk-classical dichotomy, with classical forms typically associated with upper-caste purity, contrasting with Lavani's more accessible, populist ethos. Geetanjali's commentary even extends to gharana singing, contrasting it with Lavani's grassroots appeal, emphasizing its accessibility and lack of restraint.

Lavani Ke Rang offers a holistic experience, enriching audiences with its multifaceted exploration of themes and styles. It's an art form that demands both intellectual engagement and emotional fortitude, making it a complete and rewarding experience for those willing to delve into its depths.


Producer; Window Seat Films, SaReGaMa, Director-Imtiaz Ali, Cast: Parineeti Chopra and Diljit Dosanjh, Music: A. R. Rahman

Imtiaz Ali's "Amar Singh Chamkila" arrived on Netflix with great anticipation on April 12, 2024, eliciting enthusiastic reviews and buzz on social media. Given Ali's track record with acclaimed films like "Jab We Met" and "Highway," featuring music by A.R. Rahman, the film naturally attracted attention. However, the reality fell short of expectations on several fronts, proving to be a disappointment both cinematically and culturally, unlike the enriching experience of "Lavani Ke Rang."

Ali's portrayal of Amar Singh Chamkila is devoid of context, reducing him to a one-dimensional pop icon whose demise is simplistically attributed to either the provocative nature of his songs or jealousy from rivals. While Diljit Dosanjh and Parineeti Chopra deliver commendable performances, the film fails to delve into the caste-based, working-class milieu that shaped Chamkila's identity, trivializing the substance and spirit of his music. This stands in stark contrast to the nuanced exploration of Lavani earlier discussed.

Moreover, Ali overlooks the crucial role played by Surinder Sonia and Amarjot, Chamkila's wife, in his musical journey. Without their significant contributions, the distinct flavour of Chamkila's music would not have been possible. Despite Amarjot's pivotal role in Chamkila's success, the film side-lines her, relegating her to a mere bystander in Chamkila's glorified narrative. This portrayal diminishes the dynamic partnership between Chamkila and Amarjot, reducing her to a passive figure despite her integral role in his career. Read Madan Gopal Singh’s ARTICLE in Tribune India.

Cinematically, "Chamkila" falls short, leaving the impression that the writers and filmmakers were somewhat uncertain of their objectives. It seems they were caught between the desire to be innovative and the pressure to conform to mainstream expectations. This tendency to prioritize being different can sometimes cloud judgment and lead to creative ambiguity, a pitfall not unfamiliar to Imtiaz Ali.

It's not just Ali; many popular filmmakers today seem hesitant to craft scenes with depth and structure, scenes that offer insight into characters and evoke genuine emotional responses. Perhaps they underestimate the audience's capacity for appreciating nuanced storytelling, assuming that modern viewers lack the patience for it. Alternatively, they may simply lack the skills necessary for effective screenwriting.

Over the past two decades, numerous films have fallen into this trap of prioritizing novelty over substance, resulting in a disconnect between the audience and the narrative. When films focus solely on being different without grounding their innovation in solid storytelling, the viewing experience becomes superficial, akin to consuming fast food—briefly satisfying but ultimately lacking in depth and lasting impact. A film should be more than informative; it should evoke genuine emotional engagement from its audience, and provide a richer, fulfilling experience.   

"Amar Singh Chamkila" suffers from a similar issue. Scenes are abruptly cut before they can fully unfold, often transitioning into voice-over narrations accompanied by a montage of live action and animation—a technique supposedly containing the essence of the story. While some may argue in favour of breaking conventional screenwriting norms, claiming that times have changed, the truth is that the art of writing for film has not evolved to such a slipshod state anywhere else in the world as it has in Bollywood.

If one chooses to experiment as "Chamkila" does, then it should not promise a narrative experience akin to a musical. Instead, it should embrace its experimental nature fully, akin to the boldness of Godard, relinquishing any aspirations for blockbuster success. Such a film would merge form with a deeper artistic and cultural critique. However, "Chamkila" falls short on this front, lacking depth and presenting socio-cultural issues in a shallow and problematic manner, as highlighted by both Madan ji's article and the aforementioned criticisms.

The film seems to rely heavily on its perceived "cool factor," a strategy that unfortunately resonates with contemporary audience tastes, reflecting the declining quality of films and audience preferences. Robert Zemeckis' "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," made thirty-six years ago, expertly combined live action and animation in a crime thriller. Yet, Bollywood struggles to replicate such success in modern times.

Imtiaz Ali's film also incorporates elements of newsreel documentary and animation alongside live action but fails to transform them into a compelling postmodern experience. Instead, these techniques come across as mere gimmicks, compensating for poor writing and further highlighting the film's lethargic execution.

This disparity in craftsmanship is evident when comparing the experiences offered by "Amar Singh Chamkila" and "Lavani Ke Rang," despite their differing mediums. Ultimately, it's not about the medium but about the authenticity and experiential depth one can achieve when presented with the opportunity to create something truly iconoclastic.  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.