“Tipu earned me a lot of respect. I will always be remembered as Tipu Sultan,” says film-maker Sanjay Khan, who acted, directed and produced the historical drama - The Sword of Tipu Sultan. It revolved around the life of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore in the 18th century, and was based on a novel by Bhagwan S Gidwani. Aired on Doordarshan (DD) in 1990, the show starred Sanjay Khan, Malvika Tiwari, Maya Alagh, Mukesh Rishi and Shahbaz Khan, among others.
Sanjay was inspired to create the show after reading Gidwani’s book. “As a duty to my country, I felt I should present Tipu’s story to the masses. I wanted to focus on the facts and let people know who he was. Tipu inspired me with his strength, secularity and valour. The show became one of the biggest hits after Mahabharat. I thought of making it into a film, but later realised that only a TV show could do justice to the story,” he says.
The show faced a setback when a major fire broke on its sets on February 8, 1990. Sanjay was shooting on the sets - a replica of Tipu’s palace - in Mysore. The fire not only destroyed the set, but also claimed a few lives. Reportedly, the fire was a result of loose wiring and the absence of ventilators. Sanjay suffered third-degree burns on 62% of his body. He underwent 72 surgeries in 13 months. He took another five months to recuperate.
Talking about the fire, Sanjay says, “We never imagined that such a disaster could happen. We were horrified. I was outside the studio with my writers when I heard the commotion and went to check [on it]. There was fire everywhere. I shouted, ‘Open the barn doors’. But something hit me on the head. The rest is history.” The doctors advised Sanjay to rest and “forget about acting” as his recovery was “a miracle”. Sanjay was 44 years old at the time. But he decided to continue with the production “as I don’t like unfinished business”. While Sanjay was recuperating in the US, his younger brother, Akbar Khan, directed 10 episodes of the show. Sanjay rejoined the unit after 18 months and directed the remaining 40 episodes with help from Vijay Pandey who also directed 12 episodes of the show.
Sanjay returned for the shoot on a hot day in Rajasthan. A horse had collapsed and died. “I was supposed to ride a horse and lead a cavalry. The weight of the costume and the heat was exhausting. My wife, Zarine, told me not to shoot as I was frail at the time. She wanted a body double to do it. But I felt that if I didn’t ride the horse, I won’t feel alive. I wanted to test my courage and regain my confidence. I gave the shot and didn’t look back,” says the actor, who felt a sense of achievement after wrapping up the show. He got an offer to extend the show for another year, but he refused as he didn’t want to dilute the subject.
The acclaimed show was loved not only for the characters, but also for its grandeur and locations. Sanjay didn’t want to shoot in studios and chose real locations instead. “We shot mostly in the Samode Palace Hotel in Jaipur, and its surrounding areas, to capture the royalty of palaces,” he says. The budget of the show was initially Rs 8 lakh per episode, but after a dozen episodes, it was doubled. DD made Rs 1,25,000 per 10 seconds in ad revenue, and Sanjay didn’t want to cut corner in terms of quality.
After his recovery, Sanjay had doubts on whether he could continue playing the role of Tipu. He gave Shahbaaz Khan a chance to audition for the lead role. “He was a talented newcomer, but young and raw. Shahbaaz said he wouldn’t be able to do it. After the audition, the team felt that he was more suited for the role of Hyder Ali. So, ultimately, I decided to play the role,” says Sanjay.