Biopics are a difficult genre for Indian Cinema. The challenge of making a movie based on a real life character creates a dilemma because there is a trade-off to consider between commercial ingredients and real life depiction. As a result, director Tigmashu Dhulia required a competent team and a well-researched story to overcome this challenge. Paan Singh Tomar is based on the true story of a sportsman turned dacoit (rebel, is the word that the film prefers). Part of the film is based on sporting events, part of it is revenge based drama and part of it a dacoit story. The movie is dedicated to all the sportsmen who suffered injustice, failed to get the respect they deserved and died in such a manner that is not fit for national heroes.
Revenge has a sort of madness within and the revenge of a strong helpless man only adds to the depth of that madness. Somewhere in the middle of this madness (when you have started thinking that a family feud and loss of family members is the grouse that Paan Singh had for his enemies) there is a scene, the only scene where you hear a crack in the voice of Paan Singh and a sheer heartbreak. The moment when Paan Singh is asking his dying cousin why he took the playground from him? What crime did he commit to get this in return? You instantly connect to this scene, you feel what the loss means to the rebel and to the sportsman. It’s Irrfan Khan’s detailed portrayal, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s meticulous direction and writing that makes this scene and scenes like these a treat to watch throughout the film. Irrfan has outdone himself in this movie, just the way Paan Singh once broke his own national record. Tigmanshu Dhulia brings the raw charm of the land to all his movies including Haasil, Saheb Bibi Aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar.
Paan Singh Tomar is the story of an innocent simple village man who speaks his mind and joins the army for the pride it entails. He doesn’t have any particular interests. Instead he believes that people more knowledgeable and literate can direct him in life and he has no qualms following their orders. Paan Singh’s potential as a sportsman is seen by Major Masand (played by Vipin Sharma). The film’s first half is about Paan Singh’s experience as an army man, a sportsman and a husband. A family feud then takes over Paan Singh’s career and the film’s story. Paan Singh never believed in the government but he believed in the system. It is when his family suffers the enmity that his belief in the system shatters. He turns into a hardened rebel. The rest of the movie is about his life as a dacoit and his ultimate death. While the first half of the movie plays out in flashback mode with Paan Singh narrating his life to a journalist (beautifully played by Brijendra Kala), post interval you enter the “bihad”, the ravine along with the gang of Paan Singh.
The movie is well written; every character is finely etched and developed. Paan singh’s development from an innocent sportsman to a hardened dacoit is the core of the film. Irrfan Khan delivers an extraordinary performance as the lead, he looks vulnerable in the first half and menacing in the second and he makes you believe that. The challenge of playing out a biopic, getting trained in the role of a steeplechase champion and a dacoit meets a never-say-die actor like Irrfan Khan and is won over. Mahie Gill’s portrayal as Paan Singh’s wife Indra, is also very well done. The chemistry between her and Irrfan allows for some very tender and humourous moments pre-interval. Vipin Sharma as Major Masand has been as impressive as his Genda Singh of Saheb Bibi Aur Gangster. Rajendra Gupta as the trainer is also a good casting move. A scene in the later part of second half when the dacoit goes to see his old trainer is worth catching. Brijendra Kala, Imran Hasnee and the other actors also add to their role and no one seems to out of place in this very talented team.
Apart from Irrfan Khan’s acting, the other aspect of the movie which makes it a delight to watch is the writing. The story is very well paced except in the later part of the second half. Dialogues are brilliantly written. Watch out for the “Happy birthday to you” song in the Chambal style. The language used is very true to the locales and I am glad the subtitles were used even in theatre halls, as not every line is easily understood- however it is evident that some words were eaten up by the censor board in India.
A special mention to the cinematography by Aseem Mishra - You can see the versatility when you compare his three movies – Once Upon A Time in Mumbai, New York and Paan Singh Tomar. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s acquaintance with the region is beautifully captured by Aseem. Whether it’s the dry crops of ravines looming in the foreground of a scene, or the reflection of sun and of boats on waters, or the landscapes, they just adds to the mood of the film. The camera is always on the move in the first half of the film which gives it the real feel of a sports movie. Editing by Aarti Bajaj (who has given us the best of Anurag Kashyap films) is breezy in the first half but a little slack in the second. Faisal Majeed’s sound design could have been better in the second half (rifles are very loud at times!). Sandeep Chowta adds his class to the movie. His score along with Abhishek Ray’s music feels like good team work. The background score with intermittent folk music pieces heightens the feel of the film.
After this latest film portraying a biopic on a dacoit, one question still remains; how justifiable is it to create a hero out of an outlaw? However as a movie and as a piece of visual storytelling, Paan singh Tomar is well crafted and compels you to think over the idea of treating the national heroes justifiably. Intricate portrayal of the character by Irrfan Khan and competent direction by Tigmanshu Dhulia makes the movie a sure winner. If only the second half was a tad shorter, this would have been picture perfect.