Filmmaker Govind Nihalani revisits Tamas, insisting the series is as relevant today as it was when it was first broadcast in 1987

Before Balaji and their K serials with heavily made up women making eyes at the telly in triplicate, there was Doordarshan. In the Eighties, DD rocked with series such as Nukkad, Hum Log and Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. Continuing the good work, Tamas, based on Bhisham Sahni’s 1974 novel was aired. The four-and-a-half hour long series was a deeply compassionate and honest, unflinching look at the Partition. The good news is the series is going to be aired again from today.

“I wanted to make a film on Partition ever since I entered films,” says veteran director Govind Nihalani over the phone. The director of classics such as Ardh Satya and Party says: “I had come across some literature on Partition, but at that time I didn’t think I could make a movie as I felt the subject matter was too complex. I was in Delhi as the second unit director of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and I came across this book. I liked the title (it means darkness) and I bought it without any idea it was about Partition. I started reading the book and it was unputdownable. I decided then and there that this was the film I was going to make; this was the answer to my longstanding desire to make a film on Partition.”

Nihalani’s hard-hitting film Aakrosh was part of the International Film Festival of India. “I met the secretary for Information and Broadcasting and mooted my idea of making a serious film on Partition. He was positive.”

However once the approval came from DD, it was not the end of Nihalani’s troubles. “Six months passed and the project languished for lack of finances.”

Nihalani, who was cinematographer for Shyam Benegal, knew Lalit Bijlani of Blaze Films who produced Benegal’s films. “I made an ad film for him and mentioned the project and the lack of funds. I told him to be prepared for controversy. Lalit got back to me in about 15 days with the finances.”

Benegal wrote the script in “three weeks. I involved Bhishamji at every stage. I incorporated two stories into the screenplay as I felt they fitted in well.”

Though it was first released as a tele series, Nihalani says he always thought of Tamas as a film. “I shot it on film and I thought at some stage it could be released as a film.” The series went on to win the National Award for Best Supporting Actress (Surekha Sikri) and Best Music (Vanraj Bhatia) in 1988, had an incredible cast.

“Om Puri was on my mind from the moment I read the book. I needed actors who would be comfortable in a north Indian milieu. I was lucky to get all these wonderful actors together— Om, Amrish Puri, Deepa Sahi, Surekha Sikri, Pankaj Kapur. Their contribution was beyond professional.”

Nihalani says though the making was “exhausting, the result was exhilarating. There were objections and death threats. The good thing was my producers and Doordarshan stood by me.”

Tamas is going to be aired now and Nihalani is confident that the present generation will be able to relate to the story.

“Bishamji was a progressive compassionate writer. He wrote Tamas 30 years after Partition. He could reflect on the event. It was not an emotional immediate response. He was not trying to fix responsibility on a particular group or person. What he was saying was that in every society you have a small group of fanatics who use their muscle to say they represent the group, which is not true. Innocent people are always the victims of such power play. The book is a warning not to give in to this kind of propaganda and is as relevant as it was 25 years ago.”

The veteran director adds: “Levels of intolerance are rising manifold. The film does not have a didactic approach, you experience the human tragedy.

Youngsters nowadays are much better informed and the series will help sensitise their minds. I trust the intelligence of today’s youngsters. Wherever there is human drama, there will always be takers.”

Tamas will be aired on History TV18 from tonight at 9 p.m.