<Review by: Tushar A Amin>
Directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia. Starring Irrfan Khan, Mahie Gill, Zakir Hussain.
Raw, rustic and rooted, this biopic based on seven-time national steeplechase champion turned rebel outlaw Paan Singh Tomar, is a worthy tribute to the forgotten athlete and a caustic comment on the indifferent system and our collective social apathy towards sports other than cricket.
In Paan Singh Tomar, director Tigmanshu Dhulia blends a perfect brew of essential ingredients from three genres of filmmaking – sports films, dacoit sagas and biopics – to etch a grounded portrait of an extraordinary man. In the process, he redefines the way Bollywood approaches all three. As a sports film it attempts a first. While cricket, football and even hockey have been showcased with mixed result in Hindi films, this is the first film to shine the spotlight on athletics in general and steeplechase race in particular. And man, does it make running look sexy!
The first half of the film revolves around the transformation of Paan Singh (Irrfan Khan) from a simple, straight-talking jawaan into an athlete of international repute. The entire progression from a man driven by the lure of bigger ‘khuraak’ (food) rations to a soldier who is forced to sit back during two wars just because he is an athlete (and a ‘national treasure’) to Paan Singh proving his worth make for a simple yet heart-warming watch.
The conflict comes in the form of domestic politics. Despite his internationally acclaimed achievements on the track, when it comes to his own village, Paan Singh is at the receiving end of social injustice. When the problem of his land being grabbed is deemed inconsequential by the law keepers, Paan Singh Tomar is forced to pick up the gun and become a ‘baaghi’ (rebel), not ‘daaku’ (dacoit), mind you. With the way back into mainstream society blocked by the never-ending cycle of revenge, Paan Singh and his rag-tag band of followers take to kidnapping and become notorious. When his gang exterminates members of a particular community to serve as an example for informants, the issue becomes political and a task force is assigned to kill off Paan Singh in an encounter.
The refreshing thing about this part is that the vendetta saga plays out like an indie film rather than a typical Bollywood dacoit saga. The characters, the language, the oft-funny and real dialogue and the frames have an honesty and grounded quality that is rare in Hindi films. The Chambal portion is shot in a manner that is at once exquisite and gritty.
While this film works as a perfect mix of sports film and dacoit saga, what it actually ends up creating is a riveting biopic. And the credit for this goes to that extraordinary actor – Irrfan Khan. He has worked really hard to breath life into every aspect of this character. The simplicity of a villager, the guilt of the righteous, the pain and frustration of a good man forced into doing something he does not agree with… Irrfan Khan evokes admiration and pathos with his gestures and mannerisms, his tone and his silence.
He is ably supported by the writing that is rooted in the northern Madhya Pradesh milieu and reeks of authenticity for an outsider. Some of the lines are sharp and funny, others honest and straight. There are nuanced scenes that reveal layers of the central character without shoving it down the throat. And all this is brought to life by an ensemble of genuine actors.
The film does have its share of lows. The climax is a bit overdrawn, Mahie Gill has a uni-dimensional part (Is it necessary to show her having sex in every film?! And what’s with that makeup?!!) and some of the actors in the initial sequences are awkwardly amateurish. The background score is a bit loud and intrusive. But, all these objections are trivial in the face of what Paan Singh Tomar succeeds in being. A film with its heart in the right place.
Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster was the most well-written and satisfying film of 2011. Paan Singh Tomar, which was made much earlier and left in cold storage for years proves the deftness of Dhulia’s craft yet again. And Irrfan Khan proves why he just might be a contender for the next year’s Academy Award for Best Actor in the 2012 release Life Of Pi. This film is a must watch for a discerning Bollywood lover.