Ernest Hemingway's The Killers has a washed-up boxer, Ole Anderson, who refuses to run away from his impending doom. He has come to the understanding that some acts can't be averted or avoided forever. He's the picture of a man who is too tired to care for life or death.
Kripal (Chandrachur Singh) in Gulzar's Maachis is an insurgent who joins the movement to wreak vengeance against those who have wronged his best friend. However, as the story unfolds, Kripal finds himself getting caught up in a web of unfortunate events.
He realizes that his violent actions, though informed by his anger ("Aag ke bhanwar jalte the mere andar…") have paralyzed his future. Gradually he comprehends that the consequences of certain acts can't be averted or avoided forever.
At many levels, Maachis is the story of the consumption of common people and their humanity in a ceaseless and destructive flame. The tragedy of Kripal and Veera (Tabu) is that their love is bound to fail not due to any fault on their part (In fact, they try their best to adjust to the changed reality) but due to the horrific circumstances which engulf the times. These circumstances are the Punjab tensions of the 80s and 90s.
All human dimensions of the troubles are explored. There is the impact of excesses on civilian life. These include the police's extrajudicial abuse in the form of torture. The movie ends with a news report referring to a Supreme Court-directed-CBI inquiry into fake encounters in Punjab. Pretty much every character who has joined the insurgency had to bear the loss of their loved ones or witness the highhandedness of the state.
However, merely joining the insurgency in itself is not the solution. They might end up alleviating their immediate troubles (such as the murder of policeman Khurana at the hands of Kripal), but end up in greater perils (Sanatan played by Om Puri, explains to Kripal that his encounter can earn many a policeman promotions).
There is the supposed protection provided by the movement, as informed by the Chief (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), but this involves Kripal running from one place to the other, his family at the mercy of these protectors (with the example of his slain cousin always cited as a measure to caution him against becoming a police informer) and the dubious nature of this movement they joined to fight against the state's oppression.
The biggest tragedy in Kripal's life is when he realizes that he would never be able to return to that past which he loved. ("…Main bahut dur nikal chuka hoon Jassi…")
When he meets his love Veeran in very different circumstances, both of them now a part of the insurgency, all they can do is break down and cry, for there is a mutual realization of how their story will end.
Initially, Kripal's anger is whetted and educated by the trained intelligentsia which leads the insurgency. His first lessons are on the principles behind the movement which according to Sanatan, a well-educated organizer, is based on the idea of fighting against injustice.
Sanatan, speaking from his personal experience of losses during the '47 and '84 events, drills into Kripal that this fight is not for a religion/country is borne out of their helplessness ("…ye system mujhe namard saabit karna chahta hai, magar main namard nahi hoon…").
This line is in clear contradiction to the real nature of the movement, which is described through the words of Paul Wallace in Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi "…language, religion and regionalism combined into a potentially explosive context…"
When Kripal tries to investigate the "structure" of the movement ("…Chief ke bhi upar koi hai, jo ye movement chala raha hai?"), he is quickly rebuffed with a "Kaun si movement?"
The story depicts the excesses of the state, with one of the characters referring to its conduct being akin to a merciless landlord, thus, ensuring that they know what the characters in the movie are standing against. However, it also keeps the viewer informed that the insurgency isn't as innocent as it claims to be.
For all the big talk of a fight against injustice, Sanatan's first appearance shows him murdering innocent people.
Veera's arrival in Himachal Pradesh gives a familial tinge to the insurgents' lives but the events which follow where the group members are ready to kill Kripal and Veera show their true nature. They have complete dedication to their cause, and everyone, even someone who was called sister-in-law by them a few moments back are dispensable.
In fact, from the very first moment that Kripal met the chief, his ideological indoctrination has begun. He arrived with the notion of getting revenge against specific police officers but is put on the back-foot and derided for belonging to the family of a traitor. Later, his hate is used to sharpen his motivation. He is converted into a disciplined soldier, but one who can be dispensed with if things go south.
This ability to depict uncomfortable truths from both ends is especially important in today's day and age, where opinions, informed or otherwise, are used to back one's political bias. Though the movie's depiction of events might hold true for several political movements, it doesn’t necessarily conclude that there's no point in anything because everyone is evil.
On quite the contrary, it is a powerful study of structures of power and how they seek to control individual will through their propaganda. It exists as a challenge to the viewers to go beyond their bias and learn to look at both sides of the coin.
Gulzar shows the other side, i.e., the life of the insurgents by showing the story from their perspective. There is universal relatability to the loss of dignity suffered by Kripal and his family. This is further extended through stories of Kuldip, who was forced to take off his turban by the police, and Jaimal, who had to cut his hair after the anti-Sikh riots.
However, the movie doesn't make a hero out of its protagonists, rather shows them being caught up in an inescapable whirlpool.
Shahbeg Singh, described in India After Gandhi as "…a former major general of the Indian army, a one-time hero of the 1971 war who had trained the Mukti Bahini…", joined Jarnail Bhindranwale and stayed with him till the end. He lost his life in Operation Blue Star. His is an interesting portrait, a war hero in one era, and an enemy of the state in another.
Explaining one's motivations isn't easy, for one can speak and behave in entirely different fashions. However, we live in a world with a need to define things in black and white. There can be tags for people if they behave as per expectations or against them.
With the creation of insurgents whose emotions can be felt by the audience, Gulzar's Maachis seeks to question our understanding of things.