“Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.”
These were the first words from Govind Nihalani’s Tamas, which was never meant for pleasant viewing with the family gathered around the telly.
The opening sequence of the mini-series about the Partition is one of the most compelling, intense and unsettling moments in Indian television. Om Puri, in a duel with a pig he has been paid to slaughter, struggles against the grunting animal as much as he grapples with his inner demons in a story that unfolds like a never-ending nightmare. The sequence – excruciatingly long, real and surprisingly graphic in its detailing – is a fantastic showcase for Puri’s talent.
Based on Bhisham Sahni’s novel of the same name, the 1987 series remains one of the most brutally honest depictions of the Partition. Tamas continues to be one of the wonders of Indian cinema and television. Not only did the show boast of a stellar cast – Om Puri, Deepa Sahi, Amrish Puri, AK Hangal, Dina Pathak, Pankaj Kapur and Sahni, among others – but it managed to get made despite threats (the unit was not allowed to shoot in Punjab) and shown on television (it sparked massive debates, forced Nihalani to take police protection for eight weeks, and was the subject of litigation.)
Tamas was made possible by the support Nihalani received from the industry, writers, non-profit group and other progressive forces. Most importantly, Doordarshan, which had more spine than it does now.
In subsequent interviews, the filmmaker has confessed that Tamas would not have been possible in today’s scenario. “The level of intolerance is impossible today,” he said when Tamas was re-telecast on History TV18. “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."
Tamas is the story of a human tragedy that showed us who we really were. Even as it did not take sides, the series grabbed viewers by the scruff of their necks and left them in the heart of darkness. There was no respite, no hope, and no redemption during the 274-minute saga, which included mass suicides (particularly by Sikh women who jumped into a well with their children in their arms to avoid a Muslim mob), unrelenting bloodshed and chilling dehumanisation of everyday characters.
A word too for the gut-wrenching opening tune and the haunting background score by Vanraj Bhatia.