Govind Nihalani was born on 19 August 1940, in Karachi. His family migrated to India during the partition of 1947. His father was very religious. He used to take Nihalani to films, which were only mythologicals. The film Narsi Bhagat had inspired him a lot. The thrill of realizing what was happening in front of him was getting onto him. That thrill and pleasure continued. When he was in high school, he used to go to a cinema where he discovered the English films. He never bunked school, but used to find time to go and see them. That is when the whole excitement started. Slowly he gained interest in Hindi films also. At first, Nihalani was looking for a career in civil and radio engineering. He suddenly came across an advertisement, which said “cinematography”. That word did magic to him. It was a combination of cinema and photography, both of which he was interested in. Despite his father being very much against this, Nihalani started looking for institutes that offered these courses. One of the guru’s of his family looked at Nihalani’s horoscope and said he is bound to do something which is connected with arts and machinery. So his father had to let him go. Nihalani began his career as a cinematographer, after graduating in cinematography from Shree Jaya Chamrajendra polytechnic, Banglore, 1962. He assisted V. K. Murthy for ten years, and was already a respected cameraman when he came to be associated with Shyam Benegal and Girish Karnad. The first feature film photographed and co-produced by Nihalani was Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe (1971) which was co-produced and directed by playwright and stage director Satyadev Dubey. He continued with cinematography in films like Ankur (1974), Manthan (1976), Bhumika: The Role (1977) and Junoon (1978).
Nihalani got his first directorial break in Aakrosh (1980), starring Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah besides others. It made a huge impact on audiences all over India and won several awards. He joined the ranks of serious filmmakers in India.
Nihalani then photographed Kalyug (1981) which was a big critical success. He also directed and photographed the critically acclaimed films Vijeta (1982), starring Shashi Kapoor and Rekha, and Ardh Satya (1983), starring Om Puri and Smita Patil, for which he won a few awards too. With all this success, Nihalani’s spirits were soaring higher and higher, and he has never looked back since.
Party (1984), directed by Nihalani, was again a critical success. His next photography and direction was in Aghaat (1985), starring Om Puri and Pankaj Kapur besides others. It was a great intense film and was awarded the best film by critics. Nihalani produced, wrote and directed Drishti (1990), starring Dimple Kapadia and Shekhar Suman. He then directed Karm Yodha (1992), starring Raj Babbar and Dimple Kapadia. Both films failed to receive as much appreciation as his earlier films did. Droh Kaal (1994), starring Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Ashish Vidyarthi and many others, was an outstanding film and it won a few awards as well. Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998), starring Jaya Bachchan and Anupam Kher was another gem, directed and produced by Nihalani. Venturing into commercial cinema, Nihalani made Thakshak (1999), starring Ajay Devgan and Kajol. It couldn’t live up to the standards that Nihalani had been maintaining through the years. Nihalani’s last release Dev (2004) was an outstanding film. The film, starring Amitabh Bachchan. Fardeen Khan, Kareena Kapoor and others, received huge critical acclaim, but failed at the box-office.
In 1980, Nihalani won the Filmfare Award for Best Cinematography for Junoon (1978). In 1981, Nihalani won the Filmfare Award for Best Director for Aakrosh (1980). In 1984, he won the Filmfare Awards for Best Cinematography for Vijeta (1982). In 1984, he won the Filmfare Award for Best Director for Ardha Satya (1983). In 1986, Nihalani won the Filmfare Award for Best Film-Critics for Aghaat (1985).
While working in texture films, Nihalani also filmed documentaries and advertisements. Richard Attenborough employed him as head of the second unit of the most ambitious film to be produced in India, Gandhi. Nihalani is a cinematographer of his own style. Unlike other cinematographers who indulge in capturing the natural beauty of mountains, rivers and greenery, Nihalani indulges in capturing the human expressions. A light source and a half lit face, a trademark Nihalani shot comes in so many movies