“Jab International medal jeete tab koi kuch nahi bola. Aaj jab bandook utha liye to sab Paan Singh ki maala jap rahe,” rues Irrfan Khan as Paan Singh Tomar in the film, which resonates with the fact that “Jab international film Namesake kiya tab koi kuch nahi bola. Aaj jab 4.5 crore ka box office opening bana diya to sab Irrfan ki maala japne lage.”
The actor has always deserved a standing ovation, be it his first film with Tigmanshu Dhulia in Haasil (he also played a brief role in the lesser-known film, ‘Ek doctor ki maut’ starring Pankaj Kapoor) or the latest, Paan Singh Tomar. It’s like coming full circle with this masterpiece of a film. Irrfan was trained in steeplechase under national coach Satpal Singh for this role, which shows in the meticulous rhythm of his sprints.
Narrated in his inimitable style by Irfan to a nervous journalist excellently essayed by Brijendra Kala, the film handholds us throughout the journey of Paan Singh Tomar, right from his formative years as a reed army subedaar with big appetite for food (he sprints across a town with an ice cream block and delivers it in four minutes, without letting it to melt, just to earn his entry into army sports, where he’d get more food), to the rebellious athlete wishing to reach the finishing line of his race against law.
The dialogues are generously sprinkled with Bundeli or Budelkhandi, the dialect of Madhya Pradesh spoken across Chambal valley, from Sagar, Shivpuri, and Gwalior, to the surrounding vicinity of Dholpur in Rajasthan. The dialogues are flawlessly engaging and surprisingly clean.
Director Tigmanshu Dhulia proves the fact that a film set against the rural India milieu can be made sans gaali-galochs ala Omkara, Bandit Queen, or Ishqiya. The very decision of handpicking actors from Bundeli dramatics has indeed paid off in portraying lifelike characters. Mahie Gill excels at playing the role of Paan Singh Tomar’s wife, shedding away her glam avatar and bringing the actor in her to the fore.
The germ of Paan Singh Tomar was planted in Dhulia’s head in 1991 when he stumbled upon a magazine article on Paan Singh Tomar. Back then, he was employed as a casting director for Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, an experience which must have surely come handy while making this film. Having lost the magazine twice, Tigmanshu Dhulia went on to retrieve the article on Paan Singh Tomar from the ABP archives. He began hunting for producers just to back up his research costs, as no detail on Paan Singh Tomar was available except for the fact that he was an athlete who turned into a dacoit or ‘baaghi’ as Paan Singh would like to put it.
The film grows on you after you leave the auditorium. The scene where Irrfan admits that the box of ice cream he receives from his senior during his retirement is the biggest award he could have ever won, and the encounter scene where he reminisces of his glory days is sure to induce some goose-bump moments – a rare occurrence these days while watching films.
Before you come to grips with the tragic end of Paan Singh Tomar, the end credit scrolls a list of national players who died penniless or are leading a life of penury, which means the story you just witnessed is merely a tip of the iceberg. More of such Paan Singh Tomars are lurking in the darkness of desolation, until a filmmaker like Tigmanshu Dhulia stumbles upon some magazine article and decides to breathe life into them.
After biopic films like Gandhi, Meera, Nayakan, Mayuri, Legend of Bhagat Singh, Dada Saheb Ambedkar, Gandhi my father, Guru, Bandit Queen, Mangal Pandey, Harishchandrachi Factory, and The Dirty Picture, Paan Singh Tomar is indeed a biopic that stands tall. This is simply because the film is about a common man (sorry for using this done-to-death phrase)’s angst against the system.
Paan Singh Tomar has garnered rave reviews at London Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, South Asian International Film Festival 2010, and New York Film Festival, and is sure to move you. At Institute of Moving Images, we hope it bags highest accolades in our nation, and not end up with a ‘Critic’s Choice Award’, where Irfan would applaud for a superstar who’d take away the Best Actor Award for a mindless escapist film. Well, I can almost see Irfan nodding and saying, “Kaho haan.”