Here’s Why Govind Nihalani’s Tamas Owes Its Genesis To Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi

Abhishek Srivastava - 65 weeks ago

The seed of the making of Govind Nihalani’s mega epic was planted during the making of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. In other words, Tamas owes its genesis to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. The scale and canvas of Gandhi offered Nihalani an opportunity and he made most of it during the making of Tamas - his only second directorial venture. As a matter of fact, Nihalani wanted Tamas as his first venture but the scale of the partition saga deterred him and thus kept it on the backburner and moved to a smaller project which turned out to be the National Award winner Aakrosh.

(Amrish Puri in a still from Tamas)

Govind Nihalani himself was one of the victims of partition and his family had moved from Karachi to settle in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. When cinema bug bit him, his next destination was Bangalore. It was also the period when Bangalore housed the only film making institute of the country and FTII was yet to be established. It was during his filmmaking study days, he took the decision that someday he would make a film with partition as its theme. Young Nihalani was serious towards his pursuit and thus kept devouring novels which talked about partition. It was in 1980 when opportunity came knocking at his door during the making of Gandhi. Nihalani was second unit assistant director on the film and the crowd sequences of Delhi were shot by him. The entire crew of the film was stationed at Ashoka hotel and on a day when he had nothing much to do decided to visit Sri Ram Centre.  The cultural center of Delhi also harboured a book kiosk and there he spotted Bhisham Sahni's Tamas which won him the prestigious Sahiyta Akademi Award in 1975. He bought the book only because the title fascinated him. It was a bonus that the subject matter of the book dealt with partition. The director in an earlier interview to DD had revealed that after the book was purchased, it kept gathering dust in one corner of his hotel room and it was only after seven days, he picked it up to read. The book turned out to be unputdownable.

Coincidentally, his stay in Delhi for shooting of Gandhi also matched with the screening of his debut feature Aakrosh at International Film Festival of India. Mid way the festival,  the organizers took a hurried decision and informed directors of participating films that they would be getting a chance to meet Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister. Nihalani was bit clueless about the topics he could converse on with the Prime Minister. When the moment came, Nihalani on spur of the moment asked if her government would support his venture on a film on partition? She replied back by asking him by when he would like to make the film. Nihalani replied back saying he already has a story and if the government were to support him with funds, then it won’t take much time. It was then Smt. Gandhi told him that government’s support depended entirely upon the political situation of the country at that time. The words of the Prime Minister also gave Nihalani an inkling that this was a subject which apart from carrying an emotional appeal also had a political dimension and thus one has to tread carefully while making it.

(Om Puri in a still from Tamas)

The next challenge for Nihalani was to gather the cast of the film. Bhisham Sahni, the author of Tamas came on board as Harnam Singh. Nihalani’s previous association with Om Puri and Amrish Puri came in handy and they too became part of the film without asking questions. While Om Puri was part of his debut film Aakrosh, Amrish Puri and Nihalani had started their journey together with Satyadev Dubey’s theatre group. But there were still some glitches ahead. Despite having obtained a go-ahead from Doordarshan, the director was finding it difficult to manage a producer for the film. Lalit Bijlani of Blaze Films came to his rescue (Shyam Benegal’s initial films were produced by Blaze Films) and though he was interested in a feature film on the book, later settled down for a TV series.

Punjab was earmarked as the shooting venue for the series but soon the decision was reversed in favour of Mumbai as it was also the phase when Punjab was in throes of terrorism. Tamas recalls the horrors of partition and its impact on relations between Hindu, Muslim and Sikh community. The film progresses through the eyes of Nathu (Om Puri), a tanner and his pregnant wife Karmo (Deepa Sahi). Things take a communal turn when a skinned pig is found in front of a mosque.

(AK Hangal and Manohar SIngh in a still from Tamas)

The impact of the telecast was so severe that it angered right wing parties of the country. Situation soon became tensed and it led to riot like situation in cities like Hyderabad and Mumbai. The series was almost pulled off air when the series was halfway through its telecast. A petition was filed in the Bombay High Court alleging that the serial incited communal hatred. The High Court stayed the telecast of the series but after the judges involved in the matter, watched the serial they decided to lift the stay. DD’s Hyderabad station was torched and both Bhisham Sahni and Govind Nihalani received death threats from right wing groups. Nihalani had to remain under police protection for eight weeks. But the sentiments of the people across the country were different. The almost five-hour series turned out be a massive success and it enjoyed viewership of as high as 3.5 crore – an unprecedented number in the history of Doordarshan. The series also generated extreme reactions. An army officer in his letter to a Delhi newspaper complained that he was unable to sleep after watching the series.

Glitches and controversies apart, the series turned out to be one of its kind which the country had never seen before. Nihalani had hit the ball out of the park and more than three decades later, its considered as Nihalani’s most memorable venture. The five-hour long tour de force of Govind Nihalani was aired on Doordarshan spread over six episodes. Due to the length of the series, Tamas had failed to find a theatrical release but the series with two intervals was screened at the Montreal Film Festival. 


Govind Nihalani / Tamas / Gandhi / Richard Attenborough / Om Puri / Bhisham Sahni / Amrish Puri / AK Hangal / Blaze Films / Doordarshan / Indira Gandhi / Bombay High Court /

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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