In my dealings with Asian cinema, I have seen a number of strange, extreme and experimental films, but I have to admit “Mehsampur” left me quite perplexed, regarding both its nature (an experimental mockumentary one could say if the basic premise was not a real event) and its quality. Let us take things from the beginning though.
“Mehsampur” runs as part of the 9th edition of the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival, that runs at 15 cinemas, across London, Birmingham and Manchester, from 21st June to 1st July, with 27 films, including features and short films, in competition. It is the largest South Asian film festival in Europe. Buy your tickets via this website, at respective cinema box offices: http://londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk/
The film functions as a very strange documentary, that has an eccentric filmmaker named Devrath arriving to Punjab to make a movie about the popular folk-singing duo Amar Singh Chamkila and Amarjot Kaur who were assassinated in the village of Mehsampur in 1988, in a crime that remains unsolved. His attitude, however, is rather extreme, as he asks anyone who comes his way about the killings rather rudely, and spends much of his time in bars watching some very strange live performances. Eventually he tracks down the former manager of the group, Kesar Singh Tikki, who seems to hold a grudge against them and is keener on promoting his other acts through Devrath’s film. Later on, he meets a wannabe actress, Manpreet, who ends up having quite graphic sex with him, and Lal Chand, an actual member of the band who was also shot but survived. After a number of events, that could only be described as surrealistic, Devrath forces the unwilling two on a trip to the area where the murder occurred. And then things get really strange.
Let us try the description thing again. Kabir Singh Chowdhry directs a documentary about a mockumentary (or maybe the opposite), where the narrative occasionally functions as in a feature, but rather surrealistic film, since the actual characters involved in the case mostly act, instead of “being interviewed”. Confused? Wait until you see the movie.
The fact remains though, that despite the fact that its purpose is rather vague (showing the real Punjab? finding the murderers? creating a feature?), the movie soars with a raw energy that derives mostly from three factors. The first one is the presence of Devrath Joshi as Devrath, whose obnoxious, offensive and weird resolve keeps the film moving forward at all times, despite the fact that the pace is not so fast. Additionally, the difference in character between Lal Chand and Navjot Randhawa who plays Manpreet, also works quite well in the disorienting base the film lies upon.
The second is Devrath Joshi (yes again), Kabir Chowdhry and Rahat Mahajan’s cinematography, which has captured the various settings and episodes in a way that may not be so artful, but fits the unusual aesthetics of the film to perfection.
The third is the imagination and the direction of Chowdhry, who has created a spectacle that works in so many ways (even as a psychedelic road movie), despite the lack of abidance to almost any norm regarding fiction or documentary.
As I said in the begging, “Mehsampur” is not easy to describe, since it is more of an experience than a film, or to watch for that matter. As an experience though, it is truly worth it. Personally, I will keep my eyes on Kabir Singh Chowdhry