When Kripal Singh (Chandrachur Singh) sees Inspector Vora (Kanwaljit Singh) at a Sikh shrine in Himachal Pradesh he is determined to kill the police officer. Kripal is a Khalistani militant and the protagonist of Gulzar-directed Maachis (1996). Earlier in the film, Vora had been a part of a police team that turned up in Kripal’s village searching for militants and had picked up his friend Jaswant Singh Randhawa (Raj Zutshi). Jaswant — Jassi, as Kripal calls him — is tortured in custody even though the police are aware he is innocent. Unable to get justice through legal means, Kripal turns to the militants.
After spotting him in the shrine later in the film, Kripal, armed with a rifle, tracks Vora’s entourage in the mountainous roads. But he is unable to pull the trigger at the last moment because Vora’s son is with him in the car. Gulzar refers to this in an interview with poet and academic Sukrita Paul Kumar. “[T]he fact the terrorist in the film does not shoot the child — that’s not a decision out of the intellect, it’s instinctive with that age group,” says Gulzar. “Very young boys sucked into the whole thing. None of them wanted to be there.” Kripal’s actions — or the lack of it in this case — also allows the director to sustain the sympathy the audience feels for him.
A “terrorist” film — movies with terrorists or militants as protagonists — operates by infecting the audience with Stockholm Syndrome. The most famous example of such a cinematic narrative is Dog Day Afternoon (1975), where Al Pacino and John Cazale are two Vietnam veterans turned bank robbers. As the police turn up in the course of the robbery, it turns into a hostage situation where the trapped bank employees and customers start empathizing with the robbers. Indian films such as The Terrorist (1997), Dil Se (1998), Fiza (2000), and Mission Kashmir (2000) all operate more or less on this same formula. In the dark confines of the cinema hall, the audience becomes a part of the band of outlaws or militants they see on the screen.
This is distinctly different from films such as Sarfarosh (1999) or A Wednesday (2008).
In Maachis, Gulzar builds the band of militants carefully. Besides the shadowy Commander (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) about whose motivations we don’t know, every other character is given a sympathetic backstory. Sanatan (Om Puri) has suffered bereavement in Partition (1947) and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots; Vazira (Suneel Sinha) is separated from a Pakistani woman he fell in love with; Jimmy’s (Jimmy Sheirgill) grandfather was lynched, again in 1984; and Kuldip (Ravi Gosain) was strip searched at a police station during a passport verification. They might have joined the group on their own initiative but as they well know there is no escape for them.
They will either be hunted down by the police or their own comrades. When Kuldip tries to leave, Sanatan doesn’t hesitate to eliminate him. “From the outside, the revolution seemed so romantic. Even the possibility of experiencing the bullet,” Gulzar tells Kumar. “But the Movement sucked in the hardcore toughies, the tough leader — all he wanted to do is to paralyse the system. For him there’s no party, no politics.” At other places, different characters explain how the conflict has turned into a lawless guerrilla warfare. It is easy to empathize with the disillusioned young men and women who turn to militants, but Gulzar’s script expands to include the dreaded police officers as well in this circle of empathy.
In one scene, as Kripal stalks Vora, we see the police officer talking to a senior on the phone. Kripal cannot hear him as he beyond a glass window, but the audience can. Vora tells his senior that he has sent his wife and son to Dharamshala to see the ashram of the Dalai Lama. “A child should see that world as well,” he adds. “They have only seen guns in a police officer’s home.” And, a little later he reveals that he was a poet in college, using the pen name Sahil. This is an attempt at humanizing an agent of the state who has been seen as oppressor till now. The police officer, Gulzar seems to suggest, is as trapped in the vortex of violence as the militant.
Several human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, have accused both the police and the militants of human rights abuses during the Khalistani movement. “Thousands of people have been arrested by police and security forces in Punjab since 1983… Prisoners have been kept detained for months or years without trial under provisions of special legislation suspending normal legal safeguards. There are many reports of torture during interrogation,” wrote Amnesty in a report. Amy Laws and Vincent Iacopino, doctors who have investigated torture, wrote: “Sikh militants killed hundreds of people… Punjab police retaliated with systematic torture and summary executions. …more than 2,000 persons killed in police custody were cremated illegally in one district of Punjab alone.” Iacopino later also studied torture in Guantanamo Bay. Many others were made to disappear — a strategy used by Indian forces in Kashmir as well.
In recent months, as protests by farmers against the new farm laws have intensified on New Delhi’s borders, efforts have been made by some pro-government sections to brand them as Khalistanis. Even though fact-checkers pointed out that this was a PR exercise by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, political leaders such as Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh of the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) IT Cell chief Amit Malviya have claimed that the farmers were being supported from across the border. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to delegitimise the protests by claiming in Parliament that the farmers had been misled by andolanjeevis, or professional protestors, suggesting in a way that farmers themselves are naïve and incapable for judicious actions.
“When the individual’s voice is not heard and he’s frustrated, he gathers people around himself in the name of caste, religion or region,” Gulzar told Kumar in the interview cited earlier. “He’d say — I seek justice now, today, and for myself, just now when I am alive, not for future generations. I am not fighting for any nation. I am fighting for myself. He’s very bitter.” When Maachis was released in 1996, the violence of the Khalistani movement was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Beant Singh, Punjab’s CM, had been killed in a car bomb only the previous year. The film does not attempt to provide solutions; it ends on a depressive note, with all the characters whom the audience might have empathized with dead. Solutions are not easy to find — in cinema or in real life, as the current protests have shown us.
The writer’s novel, Ritual, was published last year.