Om Puri’s character tried to kill a pig in the first scene of the 1988 period series, Tamas. The engaging opening set the tone for the show, which had darker themes like fear and violence. Composer Vanraj Bhatia’s haunting opening music added the right effect to the mini-series that was aired on Doordarshan (DD). Written and directed by acclaimed director Govind Nihalani, it was based on a Hindi novel of the same name that was written by Bhisham Sahni.
Tamas, which means darkness, told the story of immigrant Sikh and Hindu families during the Indian Partition. It was a plot that intrigued Nihalani, who felt that “it would be a suitable subject to make a movie on”. But he soon realised that the project would need a lot of money and the subject “might not be viable”. “The plot was tricky for a mainstream film, so I spoke to some representatives in DD. They were interested, so things got underway,” he adds. He knew the subject was controversial, and that there might be objections. “I was a bit apprehensive, and thought it might be banned. People felt it was anti-Hindu, and would disturb the law and order of the country. They felt it didn’t present facts of the Partition accurately,” says the director.
Talking about his decision to turn the book into a series, Nihalani says, “It was an act of faith. What I liked about the book was that it was written 40-50 years after the Partition. It wasn’t emotional or judgmental, but a well-thought-out reaction. The writer looked at the issue from the broader context of communalism.” Nihalani adds that the book drove home the fact that “all communities have kattar (fanatic) elements, who feel they are the true voice of the community, which isn’t the case”. “The majority, however, are peace lovers. So, don’t allow yourself to be carried away or be exploited in name of religion. I supported that point of view,” he says.
The series became a talking point. Nihalani received threats, and had to be placed under police protection for eight weeks. The Bombay High Court issued a stay order to prevent its screening, but the Supreme Court revoked it a few days later. Nihalani says, “While the Supreme Court judges were watching the film, I had no idea about the destiny of the show. I was on tenterhooks. I am glad Bhaskar Ghosh from DD was patient, and stood by the programme.” In a one-off move, the series was also later released in theatres as a four-hour feature film.
But while the airing got into trouble, the shooting and casting got done easily enough. They shot for six months in Film City, Goregaon, erecting various sets. “Casting wasn’t tough, as I knew most of the actors. I knew Om, and told him about the role. He immediately agreed. Most actors on the show knew what we were making. They did their homework, and came with enthusiasm. They believed in the project,” says Nihalani. The show had a stellar cast, which consisted of senior actors like Amrish Puri, Dina Pathak, AK Hangal, Iftekhar and Surekha Sikri. But Nihalani was happiest to get the author to play the role of an old sardar called Harnam Singh in the show. Om had to lose weight, and grow a beard for his character of a Muslim menial worker. “The experience was extremely exhausting and exhilarating,” adds Nihalani.