Maachis: Still lit, after all these years
“When someone has been subjected to injustice time and again… He looks for others like himself... Regardless of whom he’s fighting, it’s a response to that injustice,” Sanathan (played by the late Om Puri) says, in a pivotal scene in the 1996 film Maachis.
He’s explaining to the protagonist Kripal (Chandrachur Singh) what drives an ordinary person to rebel and take up arms. Directed by Gulzar, Maachis was a rare and fiercely political Bollywood film that attempted to understand a turbulent period of Punjab’s history. It was set in the late ’80s in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star, the storming of the Golden Temple to flush out armed militants.
Kripal is a young man from a small village in Punjab. He plays hockey with his friends, hopes to marry his sweetheart Veeran (Tabu), but ends up taking up arms after his best friend, Veeran’s brother, is detained unjustly.
“Usually, even when filmmakers show us how ordinary people become terrorists, they end up being stereotypical, but Gulzar kept the story rooted, with small, ordinary details,” says Meenakshi Shedde, film critic and India and South Asia Delegate for the Berlin Film Festival. “The film is relatable because it’s so realistic. You think this could happen to your family.”
Apart from a National Award for Tabu, Maachis also won one for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment.
“It was a very sensitive story that needed to be told,” says Chandrachur Singh, of his debut feature. “And the film was fair to both sides. There’s a line in the film ‘Lakeer ke us paar chala gaya hun, wapas aana mushkil hai, Veera’ (I’ve crossed over to the other side and it’s impossible to return)’ that has always stayed with me because you can feel the character’s anguish.”
The ’90s were when Hindi filmmakers started to replace the evil Thakur or the smuggler in his flashy lair with gun-toting militants and terrorists, in keeping with the new kinds of conflict looming to the forefront and capturing the popular imagination in the real world.
The insurgencies in Punjab, Kashmir and to some extent the north-east began to be reflected on the big screen. Over six years, Mani Ratnam directed a trilogy of films with such backdrops — Roja (1992, set in Kashmir), Bombay (1995, set against the communal riots), Dil Se… (1998, set in the north-east). These are landmarks films in the genre because Ratnam took militancy out of the “macho, violent” space and packaged it with stunning visuals and music to make the subject more mainstream.
Even Hrithik Roshan signed up to play militants in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Mission: Kashmir (1998) and Khalid Mohamed’s Fiza (2000). Both films has Roshan play characters thrust into a life of violence as a result of circumstances in Kashmir and in Bombay after the 1993 riots respectively.
“Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK’s web series The Family Man is a more recent example of a story that offered a deeper understanding of the terrorist rather than just using the character as cannon fodder,” says film critic Anupama Chopra. “While you are clearly rooting for the hero, who is a part of a secret intelligence organisation, the terrorists aren’t always painted black either. There was a conscious effort to show us why things unravel in the way they do.”
In the more “masala” space, though, militancy and terrorism have become vehicles for black-vs-white, good-vs-evil heroism of the kind where one man single-handedly takes on a group of ghouls.
Exceptions include Kabir Khan’s Kabul Express (2006), New York (2009) and Ek Tha Tiger (2012). “Kabir’s films are firmly in the mainstream space — beautiful people, locations, songs and great action set pieces, but he’s always stayed true to his politics. It’s not easy to do that in the mainstream,” Shedde says.
Khan says his experiences as a documentary filmmaker helped him approach the subject with greater nuance, particularly the two documentaries Taliban Years and Beyond, and The Titanic Sinks in Kabul (both released in 2001).
“During my documentary days, I met a Talibani prisoner who, when his daughter finally visited, became a sobbing father. When you are making a drama it’s interesting to explore these human angles,” Khan says.
Hansal Mehta — most recently in the news for Scam 1992, the story of the stock market scamster Harshad Mehta — has had two interesting takes on the subject in recent years: Shahid (2012) and Omerta (2017). Both films were based on true stories. In the first, Shahid Azmi is charged in the 1992 Bombay riots and decides to channel his anger in a positive way, by representing those wrongly accused in terror cases. In Omerta, the highly educated Pakistani-origin British terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed goes in the other direction. He takes hostages and is eventually implicated in the 2002 killing of the American journalist Daniel Pearl. “I was fascinated by why someone like him would choose this life,” Mehta says.
In an industry where leading men demand that their characters have redeeming qualities, casting wasn’t easy for the second project, Mehta adds. The role is played brilliantly by Rajkummar Rao, but “before I met Rajkummar, I had met other people who would ask why I wanted to tell this story. They would say ‘he’s not even a hero’,” Mehta says.
Mehta has an interesting link to Maachis too. He edited all the TV promotions for that film. Looking back on it, another reason it’s unique, he adds, is because it was a “poet’s compassionate look at the Punjab problem and the angst of the youth of the time”.