“The purpose of art is to prepare man’s soul, and to make it receptive to good” – Andrei Tarkovsky

When Andrei Tarkovsky wrote these lines three decades ago in Europe, it was also the time when far away in India, Govind Nihalani was recreating the partition of this country while making his film Tamas (1987). It would turn out to be a film that does precisely what Tarkovsky wrote about, but perhaps in ways that Tarkovsky had not envisioned. 

By portraying the most shocking and spine-chilling acts that human beings are capable of in dark times, Tamas prepares our soul to recognise that darkness around us and turn away from it. 

A large group of Sikh women sing with quiet passion and resolve in front of the holy book in a Gurdwara. It is late in the night. Screams of fighting men can be heard. The men have gone out in the village to fight the Muslims. Outnumbered, they are unlikely to return alive. The assailants will then reach these women and lay their hands on them. The women, led by a young lady with fire in her eyes, sing fervently and then rise, walking away in file behind their leader. Determined to not be captured by the enemy, they step out of the Gurdwara. It is dawn, and daylight – soft and eager to break into the night – is marred by smoke rising from the burning village. The file of 30-odd women reach a deep well. Their leader steps up to the wall of the well, says a prayer to the lord, and with the same resolve on her face, jumps to her death. One by one, each of the women step on the wall of the well, praise the lord, and jump with the same tranquility on their faces. The camera silently witnesses this act of mass suicide and so do we, knowing that this truly happened in a not so distant past, in a not so distant village. 

Not too far away, a group of teenage boys, recently inducted into a Hindu extremist organisation, sit in a dark house. Their leader, the glow of fire illuminating his face, fiercely talks of the weapons described in the Mahabharata. Each weapon kills the enemy in its own particular manner. He himself is not more than 18 years of age. His speech is interrupted by the sound of footsteps on the desolate road outside. It is an old Muslim trader, selling his wares. “The moment is right. You must attack,” the leader tells one of the boys, handing him a dagger. The boy stands at the door, his heart pounding, but finds himself unable to proceed. The leader goads him, but the boy stands frozen at the threshold. The victim, unaware of the boys, is walking away. The leader rebukes the novice for his cowardice, takes the dagger in his hands, and declares, “I will show you how the first attack is made”. He quietly walks up to the old man and stands behind him. The old man notices him but does not suspect any danger, so continues walking. The boy quietly follows him, his dagger hidden behind his back. The old man looks back again. The boy is hyperventilating and looks terrified. The old man asks “what is wrong”? The boy is quiet. The old man walks on. The boy is sweating profusely. Finally, he gathers the courage, runs up close to the old man, and stabs him several times in his stomach. The old man falls down, bleeding profusely. The boy runs back to the house, bolts the door, and continues to hyperventilate. He looks terrified. Streams of sweat flow down his temples. His eyes are wide open. He has committed his first murder. The camera focuses on his terrified face, and we hear the followers chant “Har Har Mahadev, Har Har Mahadev”. The terror on the boy’s face is transformed into a deep calm, underscored by a certainty that he is on the right path. A fascist is born. 

These are two of the several scenes in Tamas that document what human life can become when the forces of darkness take over, at times a calamity of terror, at others a carnival of hatred. It is a film made to shock the soul, to inform it about the ugliness that human acts can lead to, and to turn away from this ugliness wherever they see it. 

The events of Tamas are not merely events of a bygone era. Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Gujarat – in the last decade, we have witnessed enough instances of ordinary people participating in orgies of murder, rape, arson. The film is a reminder that the tortured history that gave birth to modern India and Pakistan is still very much burning and alive. The film is at once an anatomy of the communal riot, a chronicle of the early days Indian politics, a portrait of the culture of North India which is a shared heritage of the Hindus, Muslims and the Sikhs, and a portrait also of the falling apart of this culture under the weight of hatred. The finely etched characters and perceptive discussions between them reveal a nuanced understanding of how religion, politics and human aggression came together in the partition of India that left half a million dead and 15 million displaced.

This is perhaps the most intense film I have ever seen. In its chilling narration of the beastly underside of human nature, it is a reminder for us to never forget what human beings can do and force others to do when they are motivated not by love but by hatred. And it all starts quietly, harmlessly, until we realise it is to late to turn the tide. A film that I wish all of us would watch. As the epigraph warns us – “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”. 



~ by tdcatss on August 22, 2014.

One Response to “Tamas”

  1. I remember watching this as a tele-film/series on DD when I was young. Need to revisit it, yes.

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