It was 6 a.m. I was in my bathroom, listening to soft music and filled with excitement at the thought of the upcoming shoot on the sets of The Sword of Tipu Sultan. While shaving, I looked at my naked self in the bathroom mirror and, stretching my body, smiled as I felt a surge of happiness within. ‘God! Why have you made me so handsome?’ I said, a little tongue-in-cheek.

Pride does, perhaps, come before a fall.

We had two stages in the Mysore studios: one was a massive set of Tipu Sultan’s palace and the other was an auxiliary stage. Shooting started in the evening and after a couple of shots, at around 8.30 p.m., as the lighting was going on, I went out to chat with my writer, Nawa Lucknowi. About half an hour later, I heard a huge commotion from inside. I ditched the cup of tea I was holding and charged through the small wicket gate as the big barn doors of the studio were closed. What I saw shook me to the core. The left half of the studio was on fire. Above, on the catwalk, I could see a lighting man trying to put out the flames with a piece of cloth. I shouted to him and ordered him to jump down immediately. At the same time, I told somebody to open the barn doors and another person to call for the fire brigade.

Just then something hit me on the back of my head like a cannonball and I fell to the ground. I later learnt it was a tin of paint. Undaunted, I carried on with the gash it left in my head and focused on the job at hand: saving my crew. In retrospect, I obviously didn’t realize the severity of that crater, one that would bullishly remain with me for an excruciatingly painful nine months.

The book that inspired the TV series

After making Kala Dhanda Goray Log, I felt ready to do something new, and I was fortunate to come across Bhagwan S. Gidwani’s book The Sword of Tipu Sultan at Bombay airport one day, and began reading it on the flight to Delhi. I was quite intrigued to read on the first page that Bhagwan was born in Karachi in 1923, and that his father had been the head of the Hindu Mahasabha there. Bhagwan had specialized in the technical, economic and legal fields of civil aviation, acted as the counsel for India in the International Court of Justice and had served India in many other responsible positions.

The book was in its forty-fourth edition and had sold more than two million copies. Bhagwan was inspired by a European history research scholar who informed him in a chance meeting in London that Tipu Sultan had the distinction of being one of only four kings in the history of mankind who actually died fighting on the battlefield. This motivated him to research Tipu Sultan and he borrowed Rs 3 lakh from his brother for the purpose.

Bhagwan shared the story with me when I met him with the intent to acquire the film rights. Our collaboration made big news all over the country. I remember at a press conference in Bombay Bhagwan and I were being interviewed by a large number of journalists when one question came out like an accusation: ‘Tipu Sultan chopped off the heads of Hindus.’ Bhagwan promptly replied, ‘Yes, he did,’ but he went on to explain that it should not be taken as a Muslim or a Hindu head; it was not a religious war, but a political war with Hindus and Muslims on both sides. Tipu’s own army comprised large numbers of Hindu generals and soldiers. He added that Tipu did what he had to for the protection of his country which comprised 70 per cent Hindus, as certain Hindu rulers in Kerala had aligned themselves with the British, usurping Tipu Sultan’s territories.

The movie that became a TV series

The idea of making The Sword of Tipu Sultan on the big screen as a magnum opus had to be dropped due to the rampant piracy of films in those days. This had crippled and dislocated the entire Indian film industry. The conditions were so bad that financiers and distributors were hesitant to invest in any film till such time as a solution was found to this problem. Meanwhile, the advent of the television and its promise of a great future inspired me to consider making The Sword of Tipu Sultan as a grand serial for the small screen, telling the story in its entirety.

We decided to shoot the series in Mysore, because it was the centre of Tipu’s empire, which was called the Sultanat-e-Khudadad (The Kingdom of God). I put together the best writers, technicians, visualizers and actors and before the fire, we had completed the pilot episode, shot entirely in the palaces of Mysore and other nearby locations. Doordarshan was very pleased with the pilot and we were looking forward to filming the next episodes.

The production value was very high because the series was very well researched and had the support of the Mysore government. The Mysore cavalry had provided 100 of its best horses and the chief of the Archaeological Survey of India, who was in charge of the palace and the historical artefacts in Mysore, had been persuaded to allow us to use the twelve nineteenth-century cannons in the palace. They were so heavy that we could only put two in one large truck. On location, we actually fired them with blanks—probably the first time in 100 years.

Controversy and some help from the RSS

The Sword of Tipu Sultan was destined to be beset with complications.

When I had first announced the series, before the fire, we were immediately sued by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA contending that Tipu was a tyrant, and hence the work must be stopped. The Bombay High Court rejected his petition and ruled in our favour, but this did not deter the MLA from taking us to the Supreme Court after obtaining a special leave petition.

Eventually shooting began, but the fire struck soon after. When I was recovering, the first eight episodes were shot without me, while the case continued in the courts.

I returned home after thirteen months of hospitalization and travelled to Delhi for a three-bench hearing in the Supreme Court. I had hired a top lawyer from Bombay to represent us and was sitting watching the proceedings of the court with bandages on my hands when my learned counsel rushed towards me and whispered in my ear that the bench was ready to give us clearance if we deleted the words ‘The Sword of’ and reduced the title to just ‘Tipu Sultan’.

I refused to agree to this. I told him that several editions of the book were already sold out under the title The Sword of Tipu Sultan and this had never been proscribed. I said that I had bought the book not only for the content but also for the value of the title. I asked him to kindly explain this to the honourable court and tell them that I would never compromise on it. Hearing this, the lawyer’s eyes lit up and giving me a smile, he rushed back to the bench. I noticed the three judges murmuring something to each other but could not hear what was being said from where I was sitting. Then my counsel returned to the table and exclaimed that the court had dismissed the petition of the plaintiffs.

When we presented the first eight episodes to Doordarshan, they referred them to Mr Malkani, vice president of the BJP. In turn, he passed the tapes on to Nagpur, to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters. A few days later, Bhagwan came into my office and showed me a copy of a letter Malkani had sent him, written by Nana Deshmukh, a senior RSS leader whom I had met earlier in a friend’s house. The letter clearly stated that he had no objection whatsoever about the content of The Sword of Tipu Sultan as it was patriotic and he thought it should be released. Coincidentally, a call came just then from my friend Shatrughan Sinha to say that Nana ji was in his house and wanted to speak to me. Nana ji informed me that he had cleared the tapes for release and had already written to Malkani about it.

In later years, it was painful and disturbing for me to see the politicization and vilification of Tipu, without considering the facts of his life. The Sword of Tipu Sultan broke the TRP records in those days and is still remembered by one and all as a classic.

Excerpted with permission from The Best Mistakes of My Life, Sanjay Khan, Penguin Random House India.