TAMAS: THE LIGHT OF TAMASby Aparajita Krishna July 14 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 20 mins, 30 secs
Aparajita Krishna writes, “35 years after it lit India’s television screen and cinema, I am herein collating together, as an article, the talks and quotes around the seminal television series/film, Tamas (Darkness)”.
I have had in my custody for near 18 years exclusive inputs on this work. Along with that herein are new inputs and relevant information from the public domain. It makes for an ironical and telling note in year 2023.
One of Indian television and cinema’s most defining socio-political-historical works, Tamas, got televised on India’s national broadcaster Doordarshan in 1988 as a six-part mini-series. It was also shown as a long (298 minutes) feature-film. Its censor certificate is dated 31st December 1987.
This Hindi tele-cine-creation was based on the Hindi novel of the same name by Bhisham Sahni that got published in 1974 and won the author the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975. Do note that the declared Emergency in India by PM Indira Gandhi was for a 21-month period, (1975—1977). The book and the serial were set in much earlier times: in the backdrop of riot-stricken Pakistan at the time of the partition of India in 1947. ‘Bharat vibhajan se kuch saptah poorva’. It deals with the plight of emigrant Sikh and Hindu families to India as a consequence of the partition.
Tamas’ screen fruition was a result of Govind Nihalani’s vision. He would go on to co-produce, write the screenplay, co-cinematograph and direct the work.
It was jointly produced by Freni M. Variava, Lalit M. Bijlani, Govind Nihalani. Tamas’ co-cinematographer was V K Murthy. It was edited by Sutanu Gupta/Deepak Segal. Other chief credits include: art-direction by Nitish Roy, sound recording by Chandrakant Dave, music by Vanraj Bhatia. In the lead were actors Om Puri (Nathu, the chamar-tanner), Deepa Sahi (Karmo), Bhisham Sahni (Harnam Singh), Dina Pathak (Banto), Surekha Sikri (Rajo), Uttara Baokar (Jasbir), Amrish Puri (Sardar Teja Singh), Virendra Saxena (Jarnail Singh), and a wonderful ensemble cast comprising among others A K Hangal, Manohar Singh, Barry John, Pankaj Kapur, Iftekhar, K K Raina, M K Raina, Harish Patel, Ila Arun.
It is said that Govind Nihalani wanted to shoot the series in Punjab, Pakistan, but owing to the terrorist activities and circumstances it got shot in Mumbai itself.
The start of the telecast stirred controversies pointing at religious violence. Supposedly the Hyderabad office of Doordarshan was attacked, director Govind Nihalani received threats and was placed under police protection for a period of eight weeks. On 21st January 1988 the Bombay high Court issued a stay to prevent further screening of the series after hearing a plaintiff’s petition stating that the serial ‘would poison the minds of the people.’ It was alleged that the serial would disturb law and order.
Justice Lentin and Retd. Justice Sujata Manohar saw the film on a Saturday, since the telecast was fixed for Monday. All those concerned with the case were asked to come to the residence of Justice Lentin where the arguments between the two sides took place and the Judges finally gave the go ahead to the telecast. The opponents moved the Supreme Court where Soli Sorabjee defended the makers. Finally, the Supreme Court judgement allowed for the telecast to happen. The landmark judgement in favor of the series stated that it treated the fundamentalists in both communities equally and the message was loud and clear against the sickness of communalism. The tele-series gained immense popularity and became a benchmark for our future television reference.
Govind Nihalani: I was threatened with my life and put under police protection for eight weeks. I just could not move out without police protection. But I remember in the colony where I live, every evening at the time when the series came on, the whole colony echoed with the sound track of Tamas. Every household was watching it.
Tamas would go on to win in 1988 the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. In August 2013 Tamas was re-telecast as an eight-part series by History TV18 as a part of the Independence Day celebrations.
Govind Nihalani was born in Karachi on 19th December 1940 into a Hindu Vaishnavite Sindhi family. Before partition the family ran a roaring grain trade in Karachi. The brutal Hindu exodus in Tamas had parallels to the uprooting of the Nihalani family from Karachi to Udaipur.
The backstory to the making of Tamas is that Govind Nihalani while shooting as the second unit director and cameraman for Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ in Delhi, had one day, while browsing through books at Shri Ram Center’s kiosk, chanced upon Bhisham Sahni’s book. Govind Nihalani was quoted saying, “I had never heard of him. The title appealed to me. I was curious to find out what someone who called his novel Tamas had to say? I bought the book. One day when I returned a little early from the shoot of Gandhi I started reading. I never put the book down until I completed it. I had always wanted to make something on partition, given that I was from Karachi, but I had never dared to venture in that territory. I talked about it to Attenborough who offered to play any part for me free of cost if I ever made a film based on Tamas. The partition was never dead for me. Partition is not dead for me even today. It has never been erased.”
For Govind Nihalani the work on Tamas was the catharsis of a childhood trauma. Its making was both an act of faith and madness. He is quoted saying, “So, when I was making Tamas, all these feelings and memories were like a tanpura for a singer. They provided the unspoken note, or, I would even say the emotion. The rest, the sequences, events and everything else came from Bhishamji’s novel Tamas.”
Indian literature had seen quite a few novels written around the Indian subcontinent’s partition. There was the excellent novel ‘Adha Gaon’ by Rahi Masoom Raza and ‘Jhootha Sach’ the powerful work by Yashpal. There were quite a few literary works on the subject by Krishna Sobti, Khushwant Singh and Manto’s ‘Thanda Gosht’ (Cold Meat). Govind Nihalani had picked up Tamas written by Bhisham Sahmi in 1972-1973, long after Partition, and along with two short stories by Bhisham Sahni, ‘Sardarni’ and ‘Zahud Baksh’, structured them as a tale around Nathu and his pregnant wife, Karmo. He said to himself as much as to us, “I had the experience of handling huge scenes in Gandhi which gave me a lot of confidence when it came to Tamas.”
Govind Nihalani had pitched the idea of making a television project to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1981. He says, “The International Film Festival was being held in Delhi in 1981 then and all filmmakers had a two-minute window to interact with the PM. When my turn came, I asked Mrs. Gandhi that if there was a serious film being made on the Partition of India, based on a novel, will the government support it? She asked me, ‘When do you want to make it?’ I replied, ‘When you give the money,’ to which she said, ‘Will depend on the political situation in the country when you make the film.’ She was very astute. She saw immediately the significance of a serious exploration of that theme. It was bound to affect the country and its politics. She had that vision and her vision proved to be right.”
Indira Gandhi would get assassinated in 1984. The shooting of Tamas would start in 1986 and get completed and released/telecast in 1988.
While the book ends with the deputy commissioner of the district and his wife discussing his transfer, the series/film ends with Nathu’s wife, who has just seen the body of her husband lined up with the other dead, giving birth to her child in a refugee camp. Harnam Singh and his wife Banto, who have begun to take care of her, hear the cries of Hindu and Muslim communal slogan-shouting merge with the cry of the newly born child. An interpretation would say that the scene makes the message of the film very clear: the newly-born independent India will have to reckon with clashes of communal forces.
Om Puri played Nathu who has unknowingly and unintentionally triggered off communal tensions in an already charged atmosphere during the partition of India. Nathu, the subaltern by caste and class, is dumbfounded by the enormity of the events he has unknowingly unleashed. Om gave his role of a poor tanner his own skin and would rightly claim, “My characters are never pirated versions. I learn from life and feed on the script.”
Om would tell me in recall in January 2006 that he could completely identify with the character and the history of the times. He himself had personally not faced the partition trauma. His father was already placed in India, in Punjab’s Patiala, at the time of partition so he too did not get affected to that extent. But the supreme actor in Om could empathize with history. In his own words, “How much people must have suffered! He (Nathu) is just one individual representing millions of people who at that moment of history were uprooted. They did not know what the hell is going on? Where to go? The system had totally broken down. No police force, or, the army could control when millions of people are on the street. And it was loot, killing, total madness!”
One of the pertinent scenes in the book and in the tele-series is Nathu spotting Murad Ali in the crowd and running after him, trying to engage him in conversation and to somehow get a confirmation that the pig thrown in front of the mosque was not the one he had killed. However, by now the events have overtaken them so much that this question cannot even be directly articulated. Murad Ali, moreover, does not want to talk to him. So, he pretends not to hear him and hurriedly makes a getaway.
I had once asked Om, “After Ardh Satya did you feel connected to any moment, any role with as much of identification?” and he had said, “Oh yes, many, many. Tamas was one”.
Govind Nihalani would recall to me in 2008, “There are such moments in Tamas! One such is when Om’s character Nathu fears that the child will get delivered anytime and they (he and his wife) are in the jungle, isolated, and he does not know what to do. I had put a long shot on top and said, ‘Do it’. When he performed that scene, we got goosebumps. (Jab usne wo scene kiya toh rongte khare ho gaye). In Om the ability to get into a character is very strong. When he gets into the character, he creates such energy on the set which is so palpable, tactile. You can feel it on your skin. The script can only give you certain direction. An actor has to bring in his own understanding to the role. Each person is limited by his experiences. The point is to attempt a different dimension and imagine how a character can react and make it convincing. Om also has the grace to surrender to the director’s vision, try to go beyond how he understands, and attempt a dimension, which perhaps he has never gone into. That’s what makes him special. There are two-three moments in Tamas. In the morning he (Om as Nathu) notices that the pig/suar that he had killed and thrown away is lying there. He gets troubled. He delivers the pig and is leaving and while walking his feet touch upon some object that appears to be jaadu-tona type. Bad omen. Now he starts fearing. His wife is pregnant with their first child. Suddenly he feels threatened that this bad-omen object lying may affect them. He starts praying in his mind and half lip-syncing, saying it out. We had first recorded that dialogue and were playing back at the shoot. See his expression! Genuine! He is connecting with the force above him. ‘Main kuch nahi hoon, upar hai bhagwan jo mujhe bacha sakta. Main nahi bacha sakta kisi ko’. And suddenly he looks at his wife. She is going to die. And he starts shouting out his torment from inside him. The wife is lying in the gurdwara. It is in the thick of night. The world is asleep. He goes inside the gurdwara. He sits down and prays to Guru-Maharaj to save his wife. Just watch that moment. The panic. Then the moment when Nathu’s mother dies and her hand clasped in his goes stiff. Deepa unclasps his hand from the dead grasp. He looks. Then the shot when mother is lying dead and a group of sharanarthi/refugees are passing by and he looks. He lights his mother’s pyre. He then just sits and prays. He could not save her. A man comes and throws away gold bangles crying, ‘I need a roti. My daughter is hungry’. Om gives the man a look. See that look. These are the moments, which come from certain purity of spirit”.
So, I queried, “Of the person inside the actor?” And, Govind said, “Yes. It comes from a deep-rooted compassion for other human beings. You cannot design it. As a human being he has been born with some kind of depth of compassion and certain purity of heart”.
I spoke to UTTARA BAOKAR (veteran theatre and film actor) in December 2006. She played the character of Jasbir who along with the other Sikhs has taken shelter in a gurdwara. I told her that her character in Tamas remains in memory. It was brilliant! She responded by saying, “In a way this was the first opportunity for me to come in front of people, audience, through television, and get registered. When Govindji offered me the role, I got very frightened. I was scared of the medium of television, camera. Back in Delhi one had done theatre. Media is different. TV, film are works on large level. I was very self-conscious. Then a song got added. I sang that in course of the shabad-kirtan. I gained so much of experience from the role. This role was actually to be done by Smita Patil. But she was pregnant at that time. One day we were shooting Tamas in film-city and Smita was also in the vicinity for some other shoot. When she learnt that I was there shooting for Tamas she wished to meet me. I went and met her. She said, “I wanted to meet you because your role was first offered to me.”
VIRENDRA SAXENA (theatre, film, television actor who played in Tamas the acclaimed role of Sardar Jarnail Singh. He would recall in the present of 2023): There lives within me so many memories of Tamas. One day, way back in those years, I got a message in Delhi that Govind Nihalaniji was in Delhi, staying at a hotel and wanted to meet me. I went across. He asked me ‘Have you read the book, Tamas?’ I replied ‘Yes, surely I have.’ He then said, ‘If I were to ask you to name a role you would want to do in it, which would it be?’ I replied, ‘I would like to do that Role for which you will not cast me. Because for that role you have already cast Om Puri. (Laughs).’ He laughed. Then I further said, ‘There is another very interesting role. That is of Jarnail Singh.’ Govindji said, ‘Wah! I have called you to discuss that role itself.’ He told me truthfully that his first choice for that role is Naseeruddin Shah, but there could be a problem with getting his dates. If Naseer says yes then the matter ends, else he would want to cast me in that. He also asked me to read, audition, for him that speech that Jarnail Singh gives standing at the chauraha. I agreed. Later I memorized and one day spoke it out for him. Govindjji remarked, ‘I just wanted to check if the age factor will reflect in your voice or not.’ He liked my delivery. He said that in 2-3 days he will let me know. After 3 days I received a telegram from him from Bombay saying that I was to do that role. I then went on to act that role. There was hardly any fee given. The amount I received was just Rs 1500. Though I was supposed to get around Rs 15000. Anyway, that apart, the whole experience was very interesting. For the shooting Gyan Shivpuri, Amitabh Shrivastav (Bobby bhai) and I stayed in Mumbai at Ranjit Kapoor Saheb’s flat at Lokhandwala. He gave us his flat keys. My work was for 25 days. It was a very fine experience. One got to work with so many seniors. It was wonderful to work with Govindji.
I recall that when we went for the costume-trial, I noticed that the costume designer had got everything ready and fine, but the shoes were very smart. I told the person that I would not want that pair of shoes for the character. I want to wear army-shoes. The character’s walk would appear too smart in the shoes that the department had given. I wanted the character to not appear too smart. A little undefined. It is only at the end of the serial/film that it gets revealed how smart the character in fact was. People may have thought of him as a mad man, paagal, but he was not so. He carried in him his own kind of thinking and ways. He may have been perceived to be a fool, but at the end it is he who emerges to be sincerest.
Govindji had for preparation asked me to check out some freedom-fighters who may be living. I knew one. At one time I was secretary to Raja Mahendra Pratap. So, I knew some very senior, old people. I met them. They gave me that song, which we all sang in the serial, 'Watan ki aabroo ko.’ We collectively as a team sang the song in the serial. It didn’t need professional singers to render it. Every day for the shooting I had to wear a pagdi, put on a lot of makeup, eyebrows. It used to be very hot. But then one got to work on a very important series. Govindji’s guru, cinematographer V K Murthy Saheb had made it a practice, to every evening after the day’s shoot, gift toffees to artists, whose work he had liked while shooting. I and Deepa Sahi would be gifted toffees.
In today’s day and age nothing interesting of this kind is being done on our television. Now mostly it is about money-making for the producers. Now slowly television is getting side-lined, overtaken by OTT. Audience is shifting to OTT. TV could have continued to be well-used. It can help change people’s thoughts, aesthetics, by giving them meaningful content. But it got more misused.
SHAMA ZAIDI (veteran screenplay writer, theatre-person, costume designer, art-critic) while evaluating Tamas in June 2008 had made a pertinent observation. “It’s (Tamas) good. It presents another aspect of Partition and focuses on those who came to India from Pakistan. It is a saga whereas ‘Garam Hawa’ is the small story of a family. Tamas tells the story of the entire mohulla (locality).”
It was around the time ‘Garam Hawa’ was being made that Bhisham Sahni wrote his novel ‘Tamas’. I had a short conversation with Shama.
How do you evaluate Tamas series as a translation of the novel?
Agar aapne novel padha hai toh novel mein ek tanz (mock, sarcasm, ridicule) hai. Woh tanz ka jo poora pehlu tha wo Govind ne nikal ke tragic bana diya. (Govind turned that entire aspect of mock, ridicule into the tragic). Ye unka rujhaan hai. An important character in the novel, the wife of the British officer, her take, the weaknesses, all of that got removed. That aspect of stepping back and looking. Bhisham Sahni upar chadhke door se dekh rahe theh.
Objectivity thi. Wo Govind ne hata di aur andar se ghus kar unhone kahani pesh ki. Toh wo dhadhakne wali kahani ban gayi aur…
You mean that the perspective got lost?
Perspective changed. Not lost. Badal gaya. You see a story suddenly from one side, then another. Issliye padne mein wo dard nahi hai jo aapko serial dekhne mein dikhta hai. Kasak bhi bahut hai. (There is not that much pain in reading the story as much as there is in the serial. There is a lot of regret-pain).
I had also, in 2007, asked Prof. Govind P Deshpande (academic, playwright, film-writer) to assess Tamas as a serial. He said to me, “My impression of Tamas and my impression generally of Bhisham Sahni’s work is that he is not as political as his themes warrant. He stops one step short. He is very humanist. But he is not as political as his themes warrant him to be”.
But his political mind and heart is at the right place.
Yes of course. But it is also slightly left-wing Nehruvian perspective.
Were you happy with Tamas as a TV recreation?
It’s a very strong narrative. So, hammers it. It used the inherent dramaturgy to the best of advantage. That’s about all, I guess.
Tamas came at a time that in retrospect one is so grateful to. TV was then a very strong creative medium. Now Indian TV is a lost heritage. In recent years there has been such a systematic destruction of the medium that it appears that the I&B and the Indian government have abdicated all responsibility to the medium.
There is that famous joke about television. Why television is called a medium? The answer is that because it is neither rare nor well-done. It is a medium. (laughter) That’s the situation in which Indian television finds itself (26th June 2007). Everything is incredibly bad.
Decades later in 2017 Govind Nihalani would not be sure if a Tamas is possible in the India of 2017. He would get quoted in Indian Express, May 20, 2017 by Ektaa Malik, “The political and social situation in the country will not allow it. But I still have hope, because Tamas still continues to be shown, be it at a film festival or some channel on August 15.”
He was further quoted as saying, “I’m very grateful to Bhishamji for not only giving me the rights to the book, but also for accepting to act in Tamas because I could not imagine anybody other than Bhishamji for the role he did. He is a very sage like person. I must say that Bhishamji and Dina Pathak were the two actors in Tamas who needed the least direction or say almost no direction. I think at one level it was an act of faith and on another level an act of madness. I just did it in a state of possession and I must say both the producers, Lalit Bijlani of Blaze Ad Films and Freni Variava, stood by me like rocks. Even when the legal battle was on, they never gave up.”
The serial cast an imprint on the National psyche. Indian television was born and raised as a full-fledged, endowed, empowered adult! Over later decades to in the present it has regressed into a hydra-headed inept, untalented, even dangerous delinquent.
To flashback in a larger context. The serial/film starts with a black screenshot on which is written in white font: THOSE WHO FORGET HISTORY FIND THEMSELVES CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT. And the soundtrack has a woman’s wail/cry rendering ‘O Rabba!’.