The ApunKaChoice movie review of Paan Singh Tomar. Tigamanshu Dhulia’s latest film Paan Singh Tomar paints an unflinching portrait of a national hero who turns into an armed rebel and takes to the Chambal ravines after being spurned by a callous system. It’s a damning indictment of the state in which most of our forgotten sporting heroes end up once their achievements fizzle out of our collective memory. But Paan Singh Tomar was different. He chose to go away not with a whimper, but a bang.
His is an incredibly extraordinary story, a true one at that. As a young lad from a village in Madhya Pradesh in 1950, he enlists in Indian army where his talent as a runner shines through. Soon Paan Singh turns into a steeplechase runner, goes on to become a national champion and makes the country proud in international games as well, even though he is stripped of his only chance to be on the frontline in the India-Pak war of 1965.
Things begin to go wrong for this speed demon when his Tau (paternal uncle) and his sons encroach upon Paan Singh’s rural land and kill his mother and terrorize his family. In a telling sequence in the film, a harried Paan Singh approaches the police with the newspaper cuttings of his national achievements and entreats the cops for help, but no help comes his way. Pushed against the wall, Paan Singh takes up the arms, uses his experience as an armyman to build a ragtag team of bandits and sets out to take revenge.
Director Tigmanshu Dhulia deserves plaudits on several counts. First, the sequences of Irrfan Khan running and leaping across the hurdles (particularly the one shot with horses) in the first half and later revisited under different circumstances in the second half are beautifully directed. Second, the film captures the barren, sun-scorched ravines of Chambal in a way that makes the khaki clad outlaws almost blend in with the landscape, so much so that at times one can’t tell the man from the earth beneath. Thirdly, Tigmanshu puts a message at the heart of the story. The movie isn’t just a mere retelling of a hero-gone-rogue story. It calls for an empathetic glance towards our sports heroes who are remembered only as long as they win the medals.
Paan Singh Tomar wouldn’t have been what it is if not for Irrfan Khan who infuses so much passion and angst into his character that you can’t take your eyes off him when he’s on screen. He’s an actor who can give a lot of heavyweights in Bollywood a run for their money. Mahi Gill as his wife performs well and from the sidelines Vipin Sharma and Rajendra Gupta chip in.
An unpretentious, raw and hard-hitting take on the life of a rebel with a cause, Paan Singh Tomar is a film that deserves to be seen at least once. It’s dialogues are as prickly as the setting. In one such dialogue Irrfan Khan says: “Bihad mein baaghi hote hain... Dacait milte hain Parliament mein”. At that moment I imagined a thousand Anna topis giving a collective nod.