Gurpreet Singh: The maker of first Bollywood film on Sikh genocide visits B.C.

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      A towering filmmaker and lyricist who made the first mainstream Hindi movie based on the repression of Sikhs by the Indian state will recite his poems in Surrey this evening.

      Gulzar is visiting Greater Vancouver for the first time since the release of Maachis—the story of Sikhs who suffered state-sponsored violence during 1980s.

      This was at a time when Sikh militants were fighting an armed insurgency for a separate homeland.

      Released in 1996, Maachis was the first honest attempt by any Bollywood director to look into the inconvenient truth of what happened in 1984, including events that devastated the Sikh minority.

      In June 1984, the Indian government ordered a military invasion on the Golden Temple complex the holiest Sikh shrine, on the pretext of dealing with handful of extremists.

      A byproduct was to polarize the Hindu majority to help the ruling Congress party win the forthcoming general election.

      The ill-conceived army operation left many worshippers dead and important historical structures destroyed.

      As a result, the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984.

      Her murder was followed by state-engineered mob violence against Sikhs in different parts of India. In the national capital of New Delhi alone, close to 3,000 Sikhs were slaughtered.

      Maachis included imagery depicting that violence. The story revolved around young Sikh men who were forced to join the militants' ranks in response to state repression. The film also exposed police brutality in Punjab. 

      Video: Vishal Bhardwaj wrote the "Chhod Aaye Hum Woh Galiyan", which was a hit song from Maachlis.

      I went to watch the movie at a Chandigarh cinema hall shortly after its release for Indian Express, a reputed English daily in India. There was huge applause when the militants on-screen used a shoulder missile to blast a car carrying a politician involved in the Sikh massacre.

      The audience also cheered another scene in which one of the militants shoots a police officer who tortured one of his close friends.

      At the time, Gulzar received a big backlash from Indian police and right-wing politicians. I tried to interview him a couple of times, but he declined to talk.

      However, I had an opportunity to interview R.V. Pandit, the producer of the film, as well as the late Om Puri and Ravi Gosain, two actors who played Sikh militants. (The female star, Tabu, is known in the West for her roles in Life of Pi and The Namesake.)

      Indian Summer Festival artistic director Sirish Rao (right) invited Tabu to come to Vancouver in 2011.
      Charlie Smith

      The events of 1984 remain a sensitive issue in the Sikh diaspora, which has been campaigning for justice and closure ever since.

      It is pertinent to mention that Gulzar himself is a Sikh whose real name is Sampooran Singh Kalra.

      Born in Pakistani Punjab, which was separated from India due to the religious partition of 1947, Gulzar migrated to India at a very young age.

      Born in 1934, he probably witnessed gory sectarian violence that followed the division of British-ruled India into Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other.

      In fact, Gulzar has also written short stories on partition and has tried to promote Indo-Pak friendship and harmony through his poems.

      An evening of poetry and music will be held at the Bell Performing Arts Centre in Surrey at 7 p.m. tonight. Gurpreet Singh is Georgia Straight contributor, and the cofounder of Radical Desi.