(This review is published in http://www.fwa.co.in/SitePages/Paan-Singh-Tomar.aspx)
The poster of “Paan Singh Tomar” with Irrfan’s wild bull like giant leap and the director, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s film history makes you go for an otherwise low key film that hasn’t made as much noise as it should. Even when you buy the ticket, the counter guy confidently tells you to sit wherever you want as he expects you to be the solo audience.Happily, he is wrong. Here is a film that grabs you, moves you and shakes you up.
Tigmanshu Dhulia once again succeeds in doing what he did with his debut film, "Haasil.” He picks up a hard hitting subject and tells it straight like a bullet that is hard not to bite. Here is a fine example of a true story well told with brilliant justice done by actor Irrfan who seems to have dropped “Khan’ from the credits. Having been a casting director with Bandit Queen, Dhulia’s experience has paid off well. Every character along with Irrfan has been cast aptly to add sufficient authenticity.
The story drawn from true incidents and screenplay written by Dhulia and Sanjay Chauhan, takes its time building up, leading the audience into Paan Singh Tomar’s character. It is deliberately paced to give more than a glimpse into Tomar’s character and a loving life with his wife(Mahie Gill, suitably played with simplicity) and mother in a small village in 1950s.Opening with an edgy, scared journalist (nicely performed by Brijendra Kala) interviewing Tomar about what turned a national champion into a dacoit, Tomar replies, “Baaghi bante hain beehar mein, dacait bante hain parliament mein.” The casually made strong statement spoken with rustic humour sets the tone for the story that it is: intense, violent yet tender and compassionate, even gently funny, just like Tomar’s character.
Paan Singh Tomar is a simple man of Bundelkhand soil, nephew of a “baaghi “ (rebel) who he proudly claims, could not be caught by the police. Little does he know that he is on his way to be one, forced by a cruel family feud that is reflective of the Indian social and political system. He shifts from a Subedaar’s job to sports because there is unlimited food to meet his more than normal appetite. He is more than welcome on the tracks because he can run with an ice-cream pack and deliver it before it melts. When he wins his first 3000 km national game steeplechase run(seven water pits and 28 hurdles that only horses can cross), his only words to his coach are, “maa behan ki gaali mat do, goli chal jaati hai “. Simple, earnest, dialogues spoken in Bundelkhand dialect bring this script the authenticity that draws you into rooting for this innocent, honest, rare seven time athletic national champion turned dacoit who has been deeply wronged by our brutal, corrupt political and socially backward society . The writing balances out the seriousness and violence with light romance reminding you of charming scenes in ‘Haasil’ and weaves in rustic humour wherever possible.
Set in the wild, rough terrain of Chambal valley in Madhya Pradesh, the production design and cinematography(Aseem Misra) captures its harsh, unyielding, relentless character. Some great shots of Irrfan racing during his sports days and later as a dacoit making an escape with his gang across a river, make for an engrossing view. Smooth editing by Aarti Bajaj keeps the flow just right. The background score and music by Abhishek Ray brings in the necessary drama and feel with sparingly used lyrics like “teri akhiyaan do naal,teri batiya do naal” and “duniya mane bura to goli maaro”(originally written by Javed Akhtar for the film “Arjun”).An extra brownie point to UTV Spotboy for backing a non commercial biopic.
The script with distracting English subtitles, remains raw at one level, loses its grip slightly in the second half as it travels every single step towards Tomar’s exploits as a dacoit but quickly regains intensity with two fabulous scenes that makes this film stand out. A father-son scene between Tomar and his army recruit son( Swapnil Kotriwal) is a heartbreaking scene of distance and longing, as both the actors’ body language, controlled expressions and attempt at normal conversation, simple lines tug at your heart more than any melodrama seen before.
A crucial question is raised in Tomar’s confrontation scene with his cousin whom he asks tormented and anguished for the answers to the injustice wrought upon him. The lack of answers leave you deeply disturbed, bringing out the helpless dilemma of sportsmen giving their lives to the country (“desh ke liye faaltu bhaage kya”), winning medals, bringing pride, only to be turned victims caught in a corrupt social system,even chased and hunted like Tomar. But then Tomar is an exception. He is an outstanding runner who always finishes a race no matter what the hurdle. His memorable medal is an ice-cream packet for his family given by his army boss(Vipin Sharma, convincing), a deeply melting moment. Something that the country and the local, corrupt police officer looking at his gold medals, don’t understand and dismiss with “haan to diya na gold medal”. Indeed, the medals have come, along with the stamp of neglect , disrespect and humiliation to Indian sports.
Irrfan who started his career as a lanky lad in Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay”, made his mark both on television and Bollywood with unforgettable characters in films like “Maqbool”, “Life in a Metro”, “Saat Khoon Maaf”; continues to raise new standards in Hollywood with films like “A mighty heart” .In “Paan Singh Tomar” he brings his easy, unassuming style to Tomar’s character and gives it complete credibility with an endearing sincerity and enduring energy,proving his mettle as one lambi race ka ghoda.
As Tomar orders his gang gently in the film, “kaho haan”, here is a huge nod to both this brave, unfortunate champion and the film.