Based on the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her own Sikh bodyguards, Maachis was an introspection into the aftermath of the pogrom focusing on the witch-hunting of Sikh men and women in Punjab. The story is situated in a small village of Punjab, where Jassi played by Raj Zutshi lives with his mother and his sister Veeran played by Tabu. Jassi’s childhood friend, Kripal Singh (Pali) played by Chandrachur Singh is also engaged to be married to Veeran. The plot centres on these three innocent youth and how a looming tornado of surveillance and witch hunting sponsored by the state is slowly approaching them, after which none of their lives ever remained the same.
The film begins with an ominous sight of a dead body being retrieved from a well in a prison. The body is that of Jassi and inspector Vohra played by Kanwaljeet is responsible for his custody and as the plot would reveal also for his death. Meanwhile, in the beautiful serene valleys of Himachal Pradesh a small house harbours a few young militants (played by Jimmy Shergil (Jimmy) among others). Pali is also part of this group which is headed by Sanatan, played by Om Puri.
The initial song being sung by these young men itself marks the narrative of the film as melancholic and nostalgic. As the lines read “chor aye ham wo galiyan…” (as we have left those lanes of yonder…) the remaining song depicts the longing for those various insignificant simple joys of life. But after a few stanzas when suddenly the track changes from serene to glum and dark, two lines “ek chota sa lamha hai, jo khatm nahi hota, main lakh jalata hoon ye bhasm nahi hota” (a moment of despair that seems to never end, no matter how much I try to burn it, it never seems to vanish) reveals the traumatic-textual undertone of the film.
Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that Jassi had paid a heavy price for his cheeky humour which had once embarrassed Vohra who was emboldened enough to teach Jassi a lesson with repeated arrests, tortures and custodial violence which eventually led to his death by suicide. The film is replete with framed narratives throughout in this way.
There is an excellent use of outdoor spaces to elicit feelings of lost-ness and melancholy. The long tracking shots of empty black and white spaces are very well contrasted with lush green shots of farms and grasslands in order to bring out a contrast of that which is dreaded and that which is desired. The chilling opening sequence with the low angle shot of the hanging dead body in the well is a haunting scene. Maachis can be duly credited for its restrained performances and voice modulations even whilst dealing with such a sensitive and emotional-traumatic issue. As Gulzar says in one of his interviews “I heard one man say he had lost half his family in 1947 and the other half in 1984. When we were shooting, I wanted Om Puri to say the same line with no expression. But every time, tears would come to his eyes at these words”.
Maachis was a maturation of sorts for Gulzar the director. In fact, the political commentary that the film attempted was so successful at mobilizing a debate, that in the February 1997 issue of the publication, ‘Liberation’ brought out by CPI (Marxist Leninist) the film acquires a focal point of the debate on communalism. Kalpana Wilson in her article titled “Maachis: Smoke without Fire” wrote, “Even as Calcutta’s Ananda Bazar Patrika was beginning its serialisation of the graphically detailed autobiography of notorious police torturer Runu Guha Niyogi, CPI(M) Rajya Sabha MP Biplab Dasgupta was joining hands with the BJP’s K.R.Malkani to demand the banning of Maachis, Gulzar’s film about Punjab, for its portrayal of the police ‘in a poor light’. The very fact that it attracted such a response, and the fact that for the first time in 12 long years the storming of the Golden Temple and the Delhi anti-Sikh riot is being mentioned (however indirectly) in a film, and that too in a commercial blockbuster whose songs have topped the charts, makes Maachis worth a closer look”. She adds that the film manages to address the larger question of the potentiality of the punitive state to turn archaic and almost ruthless in its approach towards its subjects.
The constant critical commentary against fake encounters, frame ups and high handedness of police is brought into the larger picture when Gulzar says himself, “I saw chilling incidents. Young boys were stopped by the police who would make cruel jokes about bombs hidden in their pagris. The police could never take a joke back. I showed this in Maachis when the police searches for someone called Jimmy…. You see, those days in Punjab the police had the attitude of a hukumraan, a monarch. The establishment behaved brutally. No one else was responsible for terror. If you push someone so much against the wall, a feeling of violence will arise…. Those who do not have missiles like America to rain on others from thousands of miles away will use these youth”.
Maachis revealed that the travesties of violence perpetrated against a particular community do not cease at the completion of a singular event of large-scale violence but continue in different forms even after that. Most common are systemic discrimination and stigmatisation which are employed in many different ways. These strategies not only stifle the possibilities in the all walks of lives of those affected but also take away any opportunities for them to heal and rebuild their lives.
This piece has been edited to change the word “riot” to “pogrom” to correct the false equivalency between two communities or sides which the former word connotes.