A work of faith

That iconic tableau in Tamas — a bent Om Puri carrying his dying mother on his back,his pregnant wife beside him,the trio trudging through a land ravaged by death.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published: September 10, 2011 3:16:54 am

Tamas

4 DVD pack

Reliance Home Video,

Rs 799

That iconic tableau in Tamas — a bent Om Puri carrying his dying mother on his back,his pregnant wife beside him,the trio trudging through a land ravaged by death — has travelled well. Those with long memories will tell you that watching it now is as harrowing and gut-wrenching today as it was back when (’87) it was shown on Doordarshan after a historic Bombay High Court judgement.

Bhisham Sahni’s novel,on which the film is based,tells the story of the bloody birth of two nations. The year is 1947,the place is Jalalabad,in what was then West Punjab. Mahatma Gandhi’s call for swaraj is a rallying point for the freedom fighters in the small village. They do not know how close they are to freedom,but we can see,as the film unspools,the corrosive seeds of the divide that led to one of the most violent Partitions in history: the fissures between the Muslim League representatives and the Congress workers,the traders who want peace because it hurts business,the deeply patriotic but already hopelessly out-of-synch-with-the-times ordinary citizens who were mere pawns in the divide-and-rule game the British were playing as they were being forced out of the country.

Govind Nihalani made it as a four-hour film,but it ended up as a six-part TV series,after raging controversy and huge protests,especially from those who felt that the Hindu samaaj was being shown in,that favourite phrase,“bad light”. Neither the novel,nor the film,does any such thing: both show us with remarkable honesty what happened then (the only other film which comes close is Pamela Rooks’ Train To Pakistan). It is so sharp in recording what all the stakeholders said and felt that you wonder if it would have got clearances today,in these times of polarised opinions and weak political will: Nihalani had to get the nod from Indira Gandhi,then prime minister,for Tamas to have got made.

The performances are outstanding. In an interview (part of the four-DVD set),Nihalani says that he couldn’t think of anyone other than Om Puri for the lead role of Nathu,the low-caste innocent who was made the unwitting catalyst of the riots. He is tricked into slaughtering a pig,which is laid at the steps of a masjid. The slaying of a cow follows. And then everything goes up in flames.

The sets are amazingly life-like (apparently,Sahni,who plays a part in the film,was extremely impressed by the re-creation of the Pakistan Punjab ethos: the art direction was by Nitish Roy),and the array of actors is like a roll call of the ’80s NSD merit list,including Manohar Singh and Surekha Sikri,who got a National Award for her role. Puri’s wife is played by Deepa Sahi in one of her most felt parts. There’s also Amrish Puri,Dina Pathak,Saeed Jaffrey,Barry John,AK Hangal,Anjan Srivastav,Ila Arun,Pankaj Kapoor,Virendra Saxena,Harish Patel,Rajendra Gupta,and a whole bunch of other talents.

For Nihalani,Tamas was a work of faith. It is all of that and more. It is essential viewing.

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