British Columbia

Major Punjabi feature film shot in B.C. ghost town explores history of province's first Sikh settlers

Chhalla Mud Ke Nahi Aaya — Chhalla Never Returned — follows the story of a Punjabi man and the difficult working conditions he faces after migrating to Canada to earn a living. The movie, filmed in B.C., is based on the true stories of South Asian migrants who came to Canada in the early 20th century.

'Chhalla Mud Ke Nahi Aaya' grossed $665,000 in its opening weekend

This movie poster is also something of an ode to the old archival photos of the first Sikh settlers who worked in the B.C. lumber industry. (Rhythm Boyz Entertainment.)

In the early 1900s, a young man travels to Canada to earn money for his family back home. After joining a small group of fellow Punjabis working in a lumber mill, he is faced with difficult working conditions, harassment, and discrimination. 

That's 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 movie was filmed largely in the gold rush-era ghost town of Barkerville in B.C.'s interior, approximately 120 kilometres south of Prince George. It follows the fictional story of a Punjabi immigrant named Chhalla but is inspired by the true stories of Punjabi workers coming to Canada to work in the lumber mills at the beginning of the 20th century.

The movie is produced by Rhythm Boyz Entertainment, a Canadian entertainment company which also operates in India and the United States. It is one of the major players in the burgeoning Punjabi film industry, which caters to Punjabi speakers in India, Pakistan and diaspora communities around the world.

The story is inspired by the true stories of Punjabi immigrants coming to B.C. to work in the lumber mills in the early 1900s. (Rhythm Boyz Entertainment)

With a budget of more than $1.5 million, the film is one of the most expensive Punjabi movies 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 people in B.C. and tells the little-known history of the province's first Sikh immigrants.

'Old history coming alive'

Satwinder Bains, the director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, says her first reaction to seeing the trailer for the movie was pure joy.

"This is old 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 theatre."

Bains, whose area of research includes migration and racism, says she was pleased to see the movie's makers had done their research in order to tell the story.

The production team transformed the Alberni Valley heritage sawmill into the 'Kimble Saw Mill.' (Rhythm Boyz Entertainment)

Bains says movies like these have the potential to inspire younger generations to learn their history in a way books or schools are unable to do and should be seen as an "opening" to discuss and learn.

"We need our communities to understand that we have been here over 100 years and that 100 years has been full of experiences — good, bad, indifferent and ugly."

The movie also touches on the stories of other immigrant communities.

Sydney Eberwein, the Vancouver-based actor starring opposite Gill as the female lead, says her character is based on an Italian immigrant working as a maid trying to earn money to support her family back home. 

Sydney Eberwein, the Vancouver-based actor starring opposite Gill, says the movie also reflects on the complex relationships between different immigrant experiences in B.C. in the early 20th century. (Submitted by Sydney Eberwein)

Talking about the similarities between her and Gill's characters, Eberwein says their very first interaction in the movie reflects the parallels between B.C.'s immigrant communities perfectly, and through her character, the film is able to touch briefly on the Italian immigrant experience in B.C. 

"I say in Italian 'Io sono come te.' I'm like you," said Eberwein. 

Growing demand for diverse entertainment

The movie grossed $665,000 in its opening weekend of July 29, according to film industry publication Deadline.

It marks the directorial debut for Amrinder Gill, who also stars as the film's protagonist.

Gill began his career as a Punjabi singer in 1999 with Doordarshan Kendra, India's public broadcaster and has produced and starred in 22 movies since 2009.

Sydney Eberwein says this movie's success in and outside theatres shows there is a demand for diverse voices on and off screen. (Rhythm Boyz Entertainment)

His song Mera Deewanapan topped the Asian music chart in 2014. He has earned the title of best actor for his 2018 movie Ashke, and his 2019 movie, Chal Mera Putt, became the highest-grossing Punjabi film overseas. 

The movie is also breaking ground as the first Punjabi-language film to be shown in commercial theatres in Vancouver, in addition to traditional markets such as Surrey and Richmond.

While storylines 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 and robust history that needs to be told and needs to be told in a way that's really accessible to our communities. And it can also be profitable," said Bains. 

A mostly Canadian crew of nearly 200 people swarmed the ghost town of Barkerville near Quesnel, B.C., as the movie production got underway earlier this year. (Rhythm Boyz Entertainment)

Eberwein says this movie's warm welcome shows there is a demand for diverse films depicting a myriad of viewpoints. 

"This film is setting the stage for the size of production that can be made here for a Punjabi film."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kiran Singh is CBC's Surrey pop-up reporter and a story producer with The Early Edition at CBC Radio Vancouver. Reach him at kiran.singh@cbc.ca or @vancitysingh.

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