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I would think twice before making Tamas today, says Govind Nihalani

The veteran filmmaker recalls the events of Partition and the issues he faced while making the TV series.

Keyur Seta

Filmmaker Govind Nihalani’s Tamas was not only a well-made television film, but it is also remembered as the boldest attempt on Indian TV so far, even 30 years after it was first telecast. But the cinematographer-turned-filmmaker said he would think twice before attempting a saga like Tamas today. 

Nihalani was speaking at the Lonavala International Film Festival of India (LIFFI), where he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement award for his contribution towards cinema. His mentor-cum-friend Shyam Benegal did the honours. 

Based on Bhisham Sahni’s eponymous Hindi novel, Tamas is based on the disturbing events that led to the partition of India in 1947. Having experienced the trauma of Partition at a very tender age, Nihalani could never get the violent incidents and the sense of fear out of his mind until he started work on the film.

He recalled, “It was the first time I had heard the word ‘curfew.’ From the terrace I saw a gentleman being stabbed in the back. The killer ran away while the man started rolling on the ground, blood flowing from his back. It was for a split second that I saw the incident from our terrace before my mother hurriedly took me inside the house. But that split second was enough to imprint that image on my brain like a photograph. I can’t say whether these things in any way impressed me or played a part when I did Tamas. But the fact is that the panic, fear, sight of blood, things going on and the silence stayed with me.” 

Nihalani came across Tamas for the first time when he was in Delhi. “I saw Tamas at a bookstore in Shri Ram Centre. I liked the name as it was in Sanskrit. I realised that it’s based on Partition. At that time I was obsessed with it [Partition]; I wanted to do something on it. When I started reading the book, I experienced the same feelings that I did during Partition. The book is outstanding. The language is simple. But the narration is such that you can’t stop yourself from being affected by it.”

In the course of the discussion, Nihalani also shared the liberal view taken by the Bombay high court of Tamas. “When I showed the series to Bhaskar Ghosh of Doordarshan, he said, ‘We don’t have a problem with it. But you will have to face the ire of the majority community.’ I had never thought of this. Doordarshan didn’t censor Tamas at all. There was a case against the film, but even the high court bench of Justice B Lentin and Justice Sujata Manohar didn’t cut a single frame. It became a landmark judgment in terms of freedom of expression.”

Despite this, Nihalani said he wouldn’t agree as readily to make Tamas today, hinting at the increased sensitivity of right-wing groups. "In today’s times even if somebody were to offer me to make Tamas, I would think twice," he said. "This is because it’s difficult to get the kind of support you need in terms of resources, moral support and the courage to take it to the last stage.” 

The disturbing four-and-a-half-hour odyssey was the opening film at LIFFI. The film stars Om Puri, Deepa Sahi, Annu Kapoor, Riju Bajaj, AK Hangal, Amrish Puri, Saeed Jaffrey, Virendra Saxena, Harish Patel and many others in an ensemble cast.