In the latter part of the 1980s, Doordarshan, the national broadcaster decided to commission three major television series — the first two were on our great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharat. The third was to be a series on the history of India. This was the one I chose to produce and direct. At the time when it was being conceived, Indian television had become national, which means Doordarshan had become national.
Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana became a huge success. Given that television was still so new in India, the choice of visualising one of the world’s greatest epics on the small screen worked wonders for the audience. This was soon followed by BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, which had an equally successful run. When Doordarshan noticed that these two series became successful, the government decided that it would be probably good to do a history series, focusing on the history of India.
Among the people with whom Doordarshan had discussed the idea was me. I had incidentally concluded a television series for them called Yatra. It was a 15-part series, an experiment in itself, documenting two of the longest train journeys in the country. The train routes went from north to south and east to west, and through these passages, we tried to reintroduce the country to our people. Thereon, I suggested to the people at Doordarshan that doing a historical series in a conventional manner might face the danger of going all over the place. Instead, we should choose a book through which the narrative backbone of the series could be determined. I decided to look at it from the perspective of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery Of India. I had read the book as a child after it was gifted to me on one of my birthdays. I had read the book cover to cover and had found it absolutely fascinating.
At the time, my argument to make the book into a TV series was to give us a historical take on the nation’s origins and more so, from an individual perspective. This was significant because not only was Nehru a national leader but the available historical texts on the country were primarily authored by Western historians. Such historical narratives invariably came with the bias of an external viewpoint. However, Nehru’s take came with the empathy and insight of a person looking back at his own people’s history. Even if such was the case, the choice of Nehru’s book gave rise to another issue. Since he was not a professional historian, the task of televising the text in a proper historical manner fell upon me. So now, my twin responsibilities were to be true to the book, to Nehru’s voice and also keep an authentic hold on the nation’s history. Since a large part of the book was written when he was in jail, where he did not always have access to reference material, the book had subsequently become a collection of his own reflections on Indian history rather than a text on the subject of Indian history.