In the early 20th century, a young man travels to Canada to earn money for his family back home. After joining a small group of fellow Punjabis working at a sawmill, he faces difficult working conditions, harassment and discrimination.
This is the summary of a groundbreaking new movie entitled ਛੱਲਾ ਮੁੜ ਕੇ ਨਹੀਂ ਆਇਆ (Chhalla Mud Ke Nahi Aaya – Chhalla Never Returned) starring acclaimed Punjabi singer and actor Amrinder Gill.
Most of the film was shot in the gold rush-era ghost town of Barkerville in inland BC, about 120 kilometers south of Prince George. It follows the fictional story of a Punjabi immigrant named Chhalla but is inspired by the true stories of Punjabi laborers who came to Canada to work in the lumber mills in the early 20th century.
The film is produced by Rhythm Boyz Entertainment, a Canadian entertainment company that also operates in India and the United States. It is one of the major players in the burgeoning Punjabi film industry, targeting Punjabi speakers in India, Pakistan and diaspora communities around the world.
With a budget of more than $1.5 million, the film is one of the most expensive Punjabi films to date and stars two of the biggest names in Punjabi entertainment, Amrinder Gill and Sargun Mehta. Employing a crew of nearly 200 people in BC, it tells the little-known story of the province’s first Sikh immigrants.
“Ancient history comes alive”
Satwinder Bains, director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, says her initial reaction to the film’s trailer was pure joy.
“This is ancient history coming alive,” she said. “History is in the classroom. History is in our books. History is in our homes, and now history is in the theater.”
Bains, whose area of research includes migration and racism, says she’s pleased to see the film’s creators used their research to tell the story.
Bains says films like this have the potential to inspire younger generations to learn their story in ways books or schools can’t, and should be seen as an “opening” to discussion and learning.
“We need to let our communities understand that we have been here for over 100 years and that 100 years have been full of experiences – good, bad, indifferent and ugly.”
The film also touches on the stories of other immigrant communities.
Sydney Eberwein, the Vancouver-based actress who plays the female lead alongside Gill, says her character is based on an Italian immigrant who works as a maid trying to earn money to support her family at home.
Discussing the similarities between her and Gill’s characters, Eberwein says that her very first interaction in the film perfectly reflects the parallels between BC’s immigrant communities, and her character allows the film to briefly touch on the experience of Italian immigrants in BC
“I say ‘Io sono come te’ in Italian. I’m like you,” said Eberwein.
Growing demand for varied entertainment
The film grossed $665,000 in its July 29 opening weekend, according to film industry publication Deadline.
It is the directorial debut of Amrinder Gill, who also stars as the film’s protagonist.
Gill began his career as a Punjabi singer in 1999 with Doordarshan KendraIndia’s public broadcaster, and has produced and starred in 22 films since 2009.
his song Mera Deewanapan topped the Asian music charts in 2014. He received the Best Actor title for his 2018 film Ashkeand his 2019 movie, Chal Mera putt, became the highest-grossing Punjabi film overseas.
The film also breaks new ground as the first Punjabi language film to be shown in commercial theaters in Vancouver, in addition to traditional markets such as Surrey and Richmond.
While storylines that revolve around different characters have so far been seen as niche, Bains says people are realizing these stories can be told in fun and commercially successful ways.
“There is a rich and robust story that needs to be told, and in a way that is truly accessible to our communities. And it can be profitable too,” Bains said.
Eberwein says the warm reception to this film shows that there is a demand for diverse films that represent a variety of viewpoints.
“This film sets the stage for the production scale that can be made here for a Punjabi film.”