"Making Tamas was an act of faith. Everything that I felt intensely came into it. When Partition happened, I was a little kid but my first memory of fear, panic and blood comes from that period. My family migrated from Karachi and we settled down in Rajasthan. I was very emotional while making this film," Nihalani said.
The 71-year-old director's 1987 adaptation, which had a stellar starcast in Amrish Puri, Deepa Sahi, Dina Pathak, Bhisham Sahni, A K Hangal, Saeed Jaffrey, Surekha Sikri, Om Puri and Pankaj Kapur, is making its comeback on the small screen with History TV18 airing an eight-part series, starting from this Independence Day.
Sahni's 1974 Hindi novel is one of the best literary pieces to come out on the great exodus of 1947. Nihalani says he was first drawn to the title which means darkness. "I still remember the day I chanced upon 'Tamas'. At that time I was in Delhi, working as a second unit director on Richard Attenborough's 'Gandhi'. While in a book store, I saw this book and liked the title. While leafing through it, I found that the book was on Partition, a subject I wanted to explore ever since I became a director," recalls Nihalani.
"But, I had not come across something that I could dare to take up. There were some great books on the subject like Yashpal's 'Jhootha Sach' but it was huge and intimidating in terms of its scale. Then I read this book and my connect with it was instant. I had already made 'Aakrosh' by then so Sahniji was sure that I will be able to handle it." Sahni, whose elder brother Balraj Sahni was a renowned actor in Hindi cinema, also agreed to give an introduction and star in film as Harnam Singh opposite Dina Pathak.
"When I came to the character of Harnam Singh, I immediately thought of Bhishamji and Dinaben. I saw them as a pair and they immediately agreed," says Nihalani about casting one of the famous names in "Tamas". Looking back, he says he was immensely lucky to have found such fine actors to star in the film. "I was just lucky. All these actors were available at that time and they were also the actors who had known Partition. They were all young men at that time Amrish Puriji, Hangal saab, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapoor. We had Deepa Sahi, Surekha Sikri and Barry John was there too."
Nihalani feels that like others, Amrish Puri, the great Bollywood villain, was drawn to Sahni's story. Nihalani, who also cast the actor in his film 'Ardh Satya', said he shared a bond with Amrish Puri because they both started their journey with Satyajit Dubey's theatre group. "He did not have too many doubts and simply said 'Karenge' (will do). And what one could afford at that time for an actor like him, he accepted gracefully. He gave me as much time as I wanted and I think he had gone through the book. Amrishji gave such a restrained and touching performance. It is a delight to watch even today," he says.
Collecting a great starcast was half the battle won for the director, who despite getting a go ahead from Doordarshan found it difficult to get a producer for the project. "There was no producer around till I had a chance meeting with Lalit Bijlani of Blaze Films. He produced Shyam Benegal's films like 'Ankur', 'Nishant' and 'Bhumika'. We were discussing some other project when the topic of 'Tamas' came. He wanted a feature film out of it which I promised but warned him that it was a very controversial subject." Nihalani's premonition about the controversy came true soon. He, however, believes that such is the intolerance today that it would be impossible to produce something like 'Tamas' today. "I remember I was under police protection for eight weeks and there was so much debate for and against the film. But I must thank all the progressive forces -- writers, trade organisations, women's organisations -- they all supported us. Without that kind of support, it would not have been easy for me. Doordarshan also stood by me at that time," Nihalani says.
"The level of intolerance is impossible today. People have polarised so much. Forget the official censors, they have to be extra careful. There are so many groups like cultural groups, religious groups and political groups, they are becoming the censors now. It is very difficult and dangerous today. They don't resort to protests only, they become violent." Nihalani is currently working on a sequel to his Om Puri starrer 'Ardh Satya'. The director says this would be a new story but with a connection to the past. "I am working with a collaborator but we are not taking the same story forward but it would be similar in spirit. Vijay Tendulkar wrote the script of the first one so one is extra careful that we should be known as the worthy successor of the first movie," he said.