A few months before the Partition in 1947, a seven-year old boy was baffled to see his otherwise quiet neighbourhood in Karachi bearing strains of tension and fear. The doors of the homes of his family members that used to remain open were hurriedly shut as soon as the occupants got inside – this sudden banging of doors produced an unnerving sound. Long spells of silence reigned in the homes from where happy voices had floated out just a few days back. One day, the boy was stunned to hear the women in his joint-family home sobbing, their voices choking in the anticipation of an unforeseen tragedy. One of his uncles hadn’t returned. He did, a few hours later, and his family heaved a sigh of relief. The boy couldn’t fathom what was going on. For the first time in his life he heard words like “fasad” (riots) and “curfew”.

A few days later, standing on the terrace of his house on the fourth floor, he saw a man being stabbed in his back on the street. The man’s painful cries broke the silence of the noon. The young boy saw the assassin pull out a dagger. A stream of blood gushed out from the wound. As the man fell down, the assassin bolted into the adjoining street.

The piercing shrieks of the man and the raw spectacle of the murder left a lasting impact on the boy. Nobody would have imagined, least of all the boy himself, that one day he would go on to become the acclaimed cinematographer and filmmaker Govind Nihalani, who would depict the gory incidents of the riots caused by the Partition in 1947 in his path-breaking television series Tamas.

Karachi to Mumbai

At his sparse office at Rajkamal Studio in central Mumbai, Nihalani shuts down the laptop on which he was drafting a document when I entered. There’s a glass-fronted rack displaying books of every kind. The one that Nihalani is reading at the moment is a collection of plays by Vijay Tendulkar. Jostling for space on the rack are his numerous film awards.

“I used to watch historical and religious films in theatres,” Nihalani said about his childhood in Karachi. “As kids, we were not allowed to watch any other kind of movies. I vividly remember the first film I saw with my uncle. It was Narsi Bhagat, whose story was based on the life of Gujarat’s saint-poet Narsinh Mehta. It had his famous bhajan, Vaishno jan to tene kahiye.”

Seventy-nine-year-old Nihalani speaks in a deep sonorous voice. The clarity in his thoughts is reflected in his precise words. “When the riots erupted, my family fled to Jodhpur. But later, we settled down in Udaipur, where my father began working as a grain merchant.” Growing up in Udaipur, Nihalani’s exposure to films widened: “I was now seeing English films screened in some theatres in Udaipur on Saturdays and Sundays.”

He cultivated another interest –a passion for still photography. “Becoming a film cameraman was a natural progression to it,” he said.

After completing his education in Udaipur, when an 18-year old Nihalani expressed his desire to work in films, his father was shocked. “Getting into films wasn’t considered a regular career,” he said. “Fortunately, my father didn’t refuse outright. Rather, he sought the advice of our family guru, Shri Brahamanand.”

Brahamanand studied Govind’s horoscope and prophesied: “The boy is destined to succeed in a field that has technology, machine and art in it. Cinema has all the three features. Let him go.” Nihalani’s father supported him throughout his three-year course in cinematography at Sri Jayachamarajendra Occupational Institute in Bangalore.

Nihalani came to Mumbai in 1962 and started his career as an assistant to the legendary cinematographer VK Murthy. Later, Nihalani joined advertising, where he met Shyam Benegal. The duo made many commercials together, which were screened in theatres across India during the intervals of films. They also worked on a few documentaries.

In 1971, Nihalani got a chance to shoot the Marathi film Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe. It was directed by Satyadev Dubey and based on the Marathi play by Vijay Tendulkar. Nihalani even co-produced the film.

When Shyam Benegal directed his first film, Ankur (1974), Nihalani was his natural choice as cinematographer. Nihalani shot eight acclaimed films directed by Benegal, including Manthan (1975), Nishant (1976), Bhumika (1977) and Junoon (1978). Nihalani’s skills behind the camera fetched him the National Film Award for Best Cinematography for Junoon.

Manthan (1975).

From Benegal, Nihalani learnt the nuances of filmmaking, and he counts him as one of his four mentors. The other three are playwright Satyadev Dubey, who introduced Nihalani to the enriching world of the theatre, VK Murthy, and producer Manmohan Shetty, who produced several of Nihalani’s films.

In 1980, Nihalani directed his first film, Aakrosh. Written by Vijay Tendulkar, the film brought the angst arising out of injustice and a faulty judicial system with an intensity that had never been seen before. Nihalani introduced Om Puri in the film, who, along with Naseeruddin Shah, gave a stellar performance.

Aakrosh won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi along with several Filmfare awards. There was no looking back for Nihalani after that. He made one compelling film after another such as Vijeta (1982), Ardh Satya (1983), Party (1984), Tamas (1987), Drohkaal (1994) and Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1997). These films were part of the parallel cinema movement that emerged in opposition to formulaic mainstream cinema. “They wanted stars and chocolate heroes, we didn’t,” Nihalani said. “They wanted songs and dance, we didn’t.”

Tamas, which also happens to be his longest film (four hours and 58 minutes), was telecast on Doordarshan in six episodes in 1987. “Having witnessed the Partition, I was keen to make a film on this colossal human tragedy for a long time,” Nihalani recalled. “ I had read a few books on Partition but it was only after discovering Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas that I realised that I had found my film. After taking the film rights from Bhishamji, I requested him to help me in the screenplay. He wrote several additional scenes. In fact, his contribution as an author and screenwriter of Tamas was much more than my contribution as a director. I had thought that Tamas was a work of pure imagination, but when I learnt that it was a based on true incidents that Bhishamji himself witnessed during the Partition, it gave me enormous conviction as a director.”

Tamas (1987).

Nihalani finds it very encouraging that more books are adapted to the screen these days. It was waiting to happen, he said. “I got my ideas from literature, and they made my films more enriching and fulfilling,” he pointed out. “Both cinema and literature support each other. Now writers are getting recognition and money for their hard work.”

Nihalani hasn’t made many films in the last few years. His last Hindi film, Dev, was released in 2004, while his Marathi film, Ti Ani Itar, came in 2017. Nihalani is now looking forward to an early release of his first 3-D animation film. “It’s about the adventures of a baby camel,” Nihalani said. “I have a couple of scripts ready, the negotiations are on but there’s nothing definite as yet.”

Nihalani’s emphasis on his work is so complete that it’s only towards the end of the interview that I realise that he has only spoken about his films. I have no knowledge about his personal life and his family.

Nihalani didn’t marry. Was the workaholic director so tied up with filmmaking that he didn’t consider marrying? “I have been involved with my work,” Nihalani said. “But I have not been uninvolved with life. It’s just that some things are not destined to happen. I have lived a fulfilling life and have no regrets.”

When I asked him for his advice for aspiring filmmakers, he hesitated for the first time: “I don’t wish to sound preachy. All I can say is that there’s a way for everybody.”

“But most people are unable to find a way in the film industry?” I asked him.

“They have to struggle for it,” Nihalani said. “One should never look for short cuts. The difficult way is often the best way.”

Also read:

The DD Files: Peer into the heart of darkness with Govind Nihalani’s ‘Tamas’

In these hyper-nationalist times, a tender salute to Govind Nihalani’s ‘Vijeta’

Had enough of swaggering Simmba and Singham? Watch Om Puri’s Anant Velankar in ‘Ardh Satya’ instead