This film will never represent India at the Oscars. But it should. It is the kind of film that has a fighting chance unlike the sap that Aamir and Sharukh churn out.
Tigmanshu Dhulia has gradually become a filmmaker I want to watch more often. The rawness of Haasil, the almost-Shakespearean Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster and now Paan Singh Tomar make a pretty powerful argument in his favor. This time round, he paints a beautiful portrait of a real India we don’t often see. It’s a simple enough premise– a small town journalist is summoned to meet with the dreaded dacoit Paan Singh Tomar. He is nervous, stammers a good deal and, initially at least, asks all the wrong questions. Tomar calls himself a ‘baghi’ or rebel rather than a dacoit. And when you hear his story, you can see why he feels that way. It’s a beautifully told story that is common enough in India. Neglected athletes, corrupt police, land wars and snapshot of the life of a jawan in the army.
The film starts off on a rough note. The dialog is in a slightly unfamiliar dialect but close enough to Hindi that you can understand .After a point, it ceases to matter. Our first glimpse of Paan Singh does nothing to endear him to us. We feel more for the bumbling journo. But when the narrative of his life begins, that soon changes. Much of the events in Tomar’s life are triggered by other trivial events. He only takes up athletics because athletes do not have to subsist on rations but soon grows to love competing. And when he starts training, the director cleverly exposes the nepotism and lack of facilities that plague Indian Sports. When the pot-bellied Sports Authority of India official insists that the canvas shoe wearing Tomar switch to spiked running shoes minutes before the race just to appease national pride, you cringe because you know it is not just cinematic license. You’re not surprised when he loses and yet when he wins at a later race, we too are caught up in the moment of victory. When he finally corners his cousin for the orgy of revenge that has been building through the second half of the film, we understand the real reason behind his rage. To Paan Singh’s surprise and ours, it is the loss of the opportunity to display his athletic skills that bothers him rather than the loss of land. After all, says the young officer who is signing orders for his capture, the man did win several medals for India and deserves a little respect!
Tigmanshu Dhulia does an outstanding job with the entire film. The story telling is spot on. I did have reservations that maybe it was carefully segmented and that the various identities he had did not overlap but that is mere quibbling on my part. The cinematography captures beautifully the desolation of the Chambal valley. The director also uses clever visual clues to give us insight into the situation. For instance, the shot where Paan Singh meets his family for the last time. Or the shot at the end where he clears the last hurdle of his life. The acting in this film – right from Irfan’s portrayal to the various character actors including the villainous cousin – are on point. While Irfan, the actor who played the journalist and Mahie come in for the obvious accolades, I also thought the actors who played Col. Masand, the hotheaded young Hanumantha and Balwant, also deserve special mention.
I went for this film with few expectations. But l left the hall carrying Paan Singh Tomar home with me. And very real regret, nearly 22 years after his death, that things did not turn out differently for him.