Gulzar's 'Maachis': A History of Oppression and Atrocity is Everyone's History

Gulzar's 'Maachis' is an honest attempt to exhibit a turbulent phase of Punjab's history that's still relevant.

6 min read
Gulzar's 'Maachis': A History of Oppression and Atrocity is Everyone's History
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25-years after its release, Maachis still remains a brilliant, hauntingly melancholic cinematic experience. A film underscoring a quintessential problem, one that raises questions pertaining to state oppression and zero commitment manifested by the state to fulfil their moral and constitutional responsibility to protect and preserve human rights, as economic and national interests take precedence.

Gulzar's Maachis is a fierce and honest attempt to exhibit a turbulent phase of Punjab's history. The film is set in the 1980’s, a heart-rending period of post-independence Sikh history, stained with indelible blots of unprecedented display of monstrosity, an attack on the temporal seat of Sikhs, the Akal Takht in Amritsar.

Followed by another unfortunate, rather denting, event of a systematically perpetrated massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, UP, Jharkhand and several other states in India after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

At least 3,000 Sikhs men, women and children were murdered over the course of four days. Alas, no accountability was held up against anyone; a conspicuous affront to any sense of justice and a source of humiliation for the Indian government. Following the massacre, the Indian dispensation only filed 587 criminal cases. Many additional inquiries have been closed due to a lack of evidence.

A still from Maachis.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)


In Punjab, in the aftermath of the Operation Bluestar, thousands of innocents witnessed hell coming to life due to the increased policing of the state. Police personnel, equipped with loaded arms, made their presence palpable at each corner of the state and constantly moving near the entrance of the Golden Temple complex, colleges, shops, lanes and by-lanes of the city, and no village was kept off their radar.

In Maachis, Kripal (Chandrachur Singh) the protagonist is a young Punjabi man from a nondescript village in Punjab. A hockey player aspiring to marry his sweetheart Veeran (Tabu), but after his best buddy, Veera's brother, is wrongfully incarcerated, and tortured by the police, he gets plunged in the realm of militancy.

Gulzar has beautifully depicted the often overlooked yet crucial component of the anatomy of militancy. The obfuscated grey region that exists between the distinctions of good and bad is subjected to an investigative lens in order to pierce deep beneath the surface in search of the crux.

Cruelty on the part of security forces, and impunity granted by the state, painted the entire Sikh community as terrorists and traitors in public imagination, violating every ounce of their human and constitutional rights while hiding behind the ruse of national security. An exemplified scheme of things frequently replicated to commit massacres and genocides.

Sikh families’ post-1984 have breathed under constant fear of a backlash, the fear of being targeted because of their identity. And they were not overthinking. Sikhs had already lost an entire generation at the hands of the then ruling party of India.

A still from Maachis.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)


I was 5-years-old when Maachis released, a film is so realistic and relatable. When I watched it for the first time, it made me think that in all possibility this can happen with anyone. It takes you through a journey of innocent people who never imagined or romanticised the idea of picking up guns but were still bludgeoned by the lack of state apathy, alienation, impunity, slow judicial responses, political machinations and myriad numbing cruelties.

In the film Jaimal Singh a.k.a. Jimmy played by Jimmy Shergill, one of the supporting characters, picks up the gun to avenge the killing of his father. Jaimal even chops his hair after the massacre in Delhi. He says his Hindu friends felt guilty when they saw him. In some cases in Delhi, Hindus not only saved their Sikh neighbours but also fought against the mob. After the attack, Jimmy’s mother could not sleep because of the fear that someone might attack her son, she would simply sit beside her son’s bed.

And this has been the story of many mothers and children I have met during the course of my research on the anti-Sikh massacre of 1984. The agony of the victims of 1984 did not end with their personal traumas. The trauma transcended to the next generation with them suffering the consequences of that violence. India has a shameful history of forgetting victims of communal violence; they are often used only as political bait during elections.

Many youngsters were anguished when the killers of their family members were given tickets by the Congress party to contest elections in December 1984.

Maachis also point outs how unbridled discretionary powers proffered to an institution or office can be catastrophic and goes against the essence of the democracy, especially its police in this case.

The Punjab police used to frequently pick up several innocents, torture them and many were killed in fake encounters too. Sometimes, even their relatives were picked up to trace the missing person.

A still from Maachis.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

In a pivotal sequence in Maachis, Sanatan (played by the late Om Puri) remarks, "When someone has been subjected to repeated acts of injustice… he looks for others like himself... regardless of whom he's fighting, it's a response to that injustice.”

Maachis represents how an opportunity was snatched from two youngsters, Kripal and Jeet. The two English speaking hockey players of Punjab could have played for India but the system took that away from them, and their families were targeted and constantly harassed. Maachis is not just their story, it represents what the then Indian government has done to its young people. This also sits well with the title of the film, ‘Maachis’ - that young people of any country are like matchsticks, who can catch fire if subjected to perpetuated injustices.


Not that other communities did not suffer in Punjab, they too became the victims of political machinations and violence. The Lalru bus incident, where 38 Hindus were killed will always be a shameful blot on humanity. In the film when Kripal shares the news of the Lalru bus killings, Sanatan says, “I will not fall for these political tricks, these politicians want to divide us.”

In Maachis, Veeran’s struggle is an apt analogy to draw with experiences of every woman in Punjab who became the first casualty. The tyrannical state's machinations against the Sikh community, particularly men, frequently pushed women into a vulnerable position and put them in awful situations.

The patriarchal paradigms of Indian society allow women to travel only those paths that are acceptable to the arbitrarily manufactured social constitution for women, i.e., beholden to men's whims, powerless and an appendage of a man's prestige and stature.

The state-sanctioned police torture of Veeran's brother, which resulted in his death, and then the regular visit of Police officers to a woman living alone is a classic example of the anguish women faced in those days, which also inspired many of women to take up arms and join militancy.

A still from Maachis.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Maachis represents the fear felt by minorities, it shows how staggering delays in justice has made mockery of it.

Minorities today are more vulnerable with rising hate crimes. Successive governments in India have failed to protect minorities.

As a film made by a celebrated Indian poet, writer and lyricist, it gave other filmmakers an approval to treat the turbulent history of Punjab as a subject of legitimate cinematic inquiry

Maachis is a tribute by Gulzar to the most vulnerable and those who disappeared into the unknown. However, there’s more to be told, one film alone cannot show the pain and torture that the Sikh community has been through. It is also time for India to learn how to ensure that the brutalities of 1984 do not remain a festering sore.


(Sanam Sutirath Wazir is a human rights activist, and has been working as a researcher with the victims of the 1984 Sikh massacre since 2013. This is a personal blog. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Gulzar   Maachis 

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