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 Punjabi working in a sawmill, he faces difficult working conditions, harassment and discrimination.
That is the synopsis of a groundbreaking new movie called “ਛੱਲਾ ਮੁੜ ਕੇ ਨਹੀਂ ਆਇਆ” (Chhalla Mud Ke Nahi Aaya – Chhalla Never Returned) starring acclaimed Punjabi singer and actor Amrinder Gill.
The film was largely shot in the gold rush-era ghost town of Barkerville in upstate BC, approximately 75 miles 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 sawmills 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, serving Punjabi speakers in India, Pakistan and diaspora communities around the world.
Budgeted at over $1.5 million, the film is one of the most expensive Punjabi films to date and stars two of the biggest names in the Punjabi entertainment industry, Amrinder Gill and Sargun Mehta. It employed a crew of nearly 200 in BC and tells the little-known story of the province’s first Sikh immigrants.
‘Ancient history brought to life’
Satwinder Bains, director of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley, says her first reaction to seeing the trailer for the film was pure joy.
“This is an old story brought to life,” he said. “The story is in the classroom. The story is in our books. The story is in our homes, and now the story is in the theater.”
Bains, whose area of research includes migration and racism, says he was pleased to see that the filmmakers had done their research to tell the story.
Bains says movies like these have the potential to inspire younger generations to learn their history in a way that books or schools can’t and should be seen as an “openness” for discussion and learning.
“We need our communities to 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 actress who stars alongside Gill as the female lead, says her character is based on an Italian immigrant who works as a domestic helper and tries to earn money to support her family back home.
Speaking of the similarities between her and Gill’s characters, Eberwein says that their first interaction in the film perfectly reflects the parallels between BC’s immigrant communities, and through her character, the film is able to briefly address the immigrant experience. Italians in BC.
“I say in Italian ‘Io sono come te’. I’m like you,” Eberwein said.
Growing demand for diverse entertainment
The film grossed $665,000 in its opening weekend on July 29, according to film industry publication Deadline.
It marks the directorial debut of Amrinder Gill, who also stars as the film’s lead.
Gill began her career as a Punjabi singer in 1999 with Doordarshan KendraIndia’s public broadcaster and has produced and starred in 22 films since 2009.
Your song Mera Deewanapan topped the Asian music chart in 2014. Earned the title of best actor for his 2018 film ashkeand his 2019 film, Mere Shawl Putt, it became the highest-grossing Punjabi film abroad.
The film is also making its way as the first Punjabi-language film to be shown in commercial theaters in Vancouver, in addition to traditional markets like Surrey and Richmond.
While stories revolving around diverse characters have previously been seen as niche, Bains says people are realizing that these stories can be told in an entertaining and commercially successful way.
“There’s a rich, strong story that needs to be told and it needs to be told in a way that’s really accessible to our communities. And it can be profitable, too,” Bains said.
Eberwein says the warm welcome for this film shows that there is a demand for diverse films that represent a myriad of viewpoints.
“This film is setting the stage for the size of the production that can be done here for a Punjabi film.”