Article Hindi

25 years of Maachis: A cautionary tale for future generations

Written and directed by Gulzar, the film depicts a turbulent period in Punjab’s history and delves into the reasons why rebels pick up the gun.

Suyog Zore

It's been almost 37 years since the occurrence of the anti-Sikh riots — also known as the 1984 Sikh Massacre — which were fomented in response to then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards at her residence. Even though the pogroms lasted for a few days, violence flared on in Punjab for the rest of the decade due to the armed Khalistan separatist movement. 

The legendary director and lyricist-poet Gulzar later attempted to demystify the turbulent period of Punjab’s history after the Prime Minister assassination and what drove the young Punjabi youth to rebel and take up arms in a rare and fierce political Hindi film.

When Maachis was released on 25 October 1996, nearly 12 years had passed since the death of Mrs Gandhi. A lot had changed. India had opened its economy and the new middle class was emerging thanks to economic liberalization.  Another Prime Minister had been taken out by assassins, India had seen another terrorist attack, and politicians had found another community to target. It seemed, everyone had conveniently forgotten about this black dot on India's record of secularism, when Gulzar decided to remind the Indian viewers that there are some incidents that should not be forgotten and, instead, should be used as cautionary tales for future generations. 

Maachis tells a story of a youngster named Kripal (Chandrachur Singh) who joins an extremist group after seeing his friend Jaswant (Rajendranath Zutshi) being apprehended and tortured by the police for a crime he did not commit. They are simple youngsters who find joy in simple things like playing hockey and eating carrots fresh from the farm. Kripal is engaged to Jaswant's sister Veeran (Tabu) and hopes to marry her soon. But haunted by the marks left on his friend's body by the police and grave injustice meted out by the people who are supposed to protect, Kripal wanders away from home aimlessly. Like many other wronged men of that time, Kripal finds only one answer to injustice — violence. 

In his pursuit for revenge, he meets a group of youngsters, some of whom were affected by some incident or  the other related to the 1984 Sikh Massacre. These men are mentored by Sanatan, played by the brilliant Om Puri, who also harbours a grudge against the Indian armed forces. Gulzar refrains from showing the viewer the colourful sarso ke khet and makhi di roti of Punjab; instead, we get a bleak portrayal of the youth of the state, who are subjected to various atrocities. Although Maachis is told from the point of view of youngsters who have picked up arms, Gulzar doesn't lose his objectivity.  He remains fair to both sides. He shows us how these young men are coaxed into believing that violence is the only answer.

They are not your typical bloodthirsty rebels. These youngsters don't sing rousing marching anthems, nor are they interested in finding out who among them is the most skilled shooter, instead they pick up the dafli and reminisce about their homes and the old days when they were carefree youngsters. With this, Gulzar constantly reminds you that these are simply young men who are forced to take up arms. 

One of the most amazing facets of Maachis is how Gulzar moulds a bunch of young newcomers into sincere performers. This was Chandrachur Singh's first movie and it was a far cry from his comic role in his second film Tere Mere Sapne (1996). The actor beautifully expresses pain, anger and joy with his piercing eyes. An unknown and a pre-Mohabbatein (2000) Jimmy Sheirgill plays the playful and happy-go-lucky Jimmy. The film also gave Tabu her first National award for best actress. 

Although some might not like this movie for being too realistic or find faults in the performances or may not regard it as a classic, there is one thing it will be forever remembered for — Vishal Bhardwaj's iconic music. 

This film marked the beginning of a now-legendary collaboration between Bhardwaj and poet-lyricist and film director Gulzar, one that resulted in several other gems such as Omkara (2006), Kaminey (2009), Ishqiya (2010) and Haider (2014).

Maachis's soundtrack, which is an essential component of the film, boasts soul-stirring numbers on undying hope, grief, separation and longing for a loved one.

The most popular of the lot is 'Chappa Chappa Charkha Chale', a Punjabi folk song sung melodiously by Suresh Wadkar and Hariharan. The song shows these rebels wandering around in the forest and reminiscing about their glory days. They sing of the kitchen stove and the veil that covers their women's faces. Although it's not a fast-paced song and doesn't feature heavy percussion, it still pumps you up when you are low on energy.

'Chhod Aaye Hum Woh Galiyaan' is another popular track that aims to depict positivity and hope amid the dark realities. Hariharan, Suresh Wadkar, Vinod Raina and KK express these rebels' cathartic experiences as they begin their journey. 

During a recent media interaction to launch an unreleased song from Maachis, Gulzar said, "Vishal's tunes are a lot like him, simple, melodious, and have a history within. We worked together for the first time in Maachis, and it was a pleasure. I remember we were so taken in by the song 'Chhod Aaye Hum Woh Galiyaan', we would often ask him to sing it on set. Not just me, even the crew members would do that."

If these two songs were about the men reminiscing about their homes, the haunting 'Pani Pani' captures the grief and longing of a sorrowful and lonely woman awaiting the return of normalcy. Lata Mangeshkar's melodious voice takes the song to another level. 

'Bheje Kahaar' is another song that depicts the desperation of a woman who is pining for her man. The rest of the album, which also includes songs like 'Tum Gaye', 'Aaye Hawaa' and 'Yaad Na Aaye' also add to the emotional intensity of the film but also take the story forward while keeping the natural essence intact.

Maachis's soundtrack evokes both the hopefulness and helplessness of the young men and women whose lives were irrevocably destroyed. Generally when a  film is appreciated for being timeless classic and relevant even 25 years of its release, it a considered a good thing but, I'm sure, people associated with the film will be truly happy when the film, and its theme, become relics of a bygone barbaric era.