While Nehru did have a couple of historian friends to assist him such as EP Thompson, a British scholar, my concern was how contemporary Indian historians perceived the nation’s history. After all, the series needed to have a point of relevance for the people who would be watching it in contemporary times. What I did then was hire a historian, specialising in that era, as consultant for each period of the history mentioned in the book. Eventually, I ended up having 15 historians on board along with my six script writers. The entire script department was headed by my long-time colleague and screenplay writer Shama Zaidi. She, along with Atul Tiwari who also pitched in as one of the writers, became regular writers for me since then. Simultaneously, Shama was also heading the editorial group and altogether we ended up writing 53 scripts, each one of an hour’s duration. Bharat Ek Khoj came to be based on these scripts. Then, Nitish Roy, one of the best contemporary art directors was roped in for production design as I was striving for historical authenticity. I was very conscious of the fact that it will become a historical reference series after it was made so no detail was spared.
“It’s very interesting to note that the Golden Age of Indian Cinema, when stalwarts like Ritwick Ghatak, Satyajit Ray and Guru Dutt reigned, was a time when Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister [1947-64] of India”
Sanju Surendran | Filmmaker
“Nehru’s vision had a huge role to play in the establishment of FTII”
AADISH KELUS KAR | Filmmaker
However, when the series was broadcast, its viewership was nowhere close to that of Ramayana or Mahabharata. But soon enough, Doordarshan decided that it could follow Mahabharat on Sunday mornings. Suddenly, our viewership just jumped up. School children, college kids, teachers — everyone used to watch it. And that is when it went on to become an influential piece of television. Besides, I used to get a lot of mail where viewers would ask me questions, or dispute certain points. All of this constructive criticism implied that the series was driving home its point—that it was not mere entertainment. Afterwards, the reruns were not only aired on national television but also on private channels. Even foreign countries including several in Africa, China and Russia used the series to showcase India.
History becomes interesting to most of us when we can find its relevance to our contemporary circumstances and life. Otherwise, we don’t feel particularly connected to it. I think the popularity of the series was largely because the viewers connected to the narrative. In that sense, Bharat Ek Khoj acts as a very good introduction to this country’s history. That is precisely why I feel the series is not dated.
It took us over four years of research, preparation, scripting and actual production to make Bharat Ek Khoj. The actual shooting took us one-and-a-half years since we had to recreate every period, which in itself was a time-consuming process. While shooting, we had three film units simultaneously to get the documentary material right. I was heading one of the units which were travelling all over India. The documentary part aside, the parts that were enacted were being shot all over Mumbai Film City where we had constructed over 110 sets referring to various historical eras.
The project, which was huge in its scope, involved planning, casting, fabrication, costume design, set design, and later on editing a large amount of footage—there were three editing suites and it was going on parallel to our shooting. And there were the sound recording studios. The experience was nothing short of running a factory. This experience became extremely valuable for all the projects I did later. Working on such an epic scale gave me the assurance that I could handle big budget projects that needed larger amount of supervision and streamlining of diverse resources.
Previously, I had made a detailed documentary on Nehru which was shown in three parts on Doordarshan. So for that, I had studied Nehru and his works extensively. For instance, as the country’s political head he used to regularly write letters to his fellow statesmen, about matters at hand, to each of his ministries and to chief ministers of all his states. He was constantly in touch with what was happening around him and had a good system in place. All of this material is readily available in the Nehru Memorial Library. Nehru is one among the best archived prime ministers of the modern world.
In the last 10-15 years, Nehru has come under a lot of criticism despite the fact that he remains to be one of the foundational leaders of the nation. He was instrumental in laying the stepping stones on which India as a nation could develop. Take for instance, his five-year plans. There may have been flaws in their execution but we might not have grown as a balanced nation without them.
Of all the leaders of the freedom Movement, it was perhaps Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who saw India’s role and place in the world with an insight, clarity and objectivity that a majority of our country men have accepted since. The relevance of Nehru in the development of independent India can hardly be underestimated and attempts to do so do not make any rational sense.
As told to Usri Basistha