By Hindustan Times
Movie: Paan Singh Tomar
Direction: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Actors: Irrfan, Mahie Gill
There is an understated elegance about Irrfan (he dropped the last name Khan some time ago) in Paan Singh Tomar. He plays a national level athlete who becomes a dreaded dacoit in the Chambal Valley. Tomar sprints over hurdles with breathtaking ease and eventually displays the same stubborn determination while murdering men who have robbed him of his ancestral land. Irrfan imbues Tomar with grace and a quiet dignity. So even when he meets the inevitable fate of a bandit and his body riddled with bullets, collapses into the dusty ground, there is something heroic about him.
Paan Singh Tomar is fiction inspired by true events. The story is remarkable –Tomar is an army subedaar who gets into athletics only because sportsmen get more to eat. After a race, the first thing he does is grab and devour a bunch of bananas. Tomar keeps his faith in the system and doesn’t resort to violence until a lethargic, blatantly corrupt cop refuses to register his complaint and instead asks Tomar, who has travelled abroad for sporting competitions, why foreigners wear such few clothes. Hurt and angry, Tomar wonders: Desh keliye faltu bhagey kya?
The moment has genuine pathos. As does Tomar’s wounded declaration to a journalist that despite being a seven-time National Games winner, he remained anonymous, while murder and kidnapping brought him fame. But despite the rich raw material and quality performances, Paan Singh Tomar doesn’t soar. Stretches of the screenplay are sluggish and strangely inert. More critically, I never got a sense of what Tomar’s conversion from an army man to a murderer did to his psyche. Yes, he resorts to violence only because he is provoked but subsequently, he seems oddly at ease with his criminality. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia establishes a loving relationship between Tomar and his wife, Indra, played by Mahie Gill. But Indra and his two children largely disappear from his life when he becomes an outlaw and we never really see him ache for them.
Dhulia was a casting director on Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. In interviews, he has said that he first heard about Paan Singh Tomar while working on that film and decided that some day he would make a film on him. Tomar was a confrère of Phoolan Devi. Naturally then, we see some of the same motifs – the spidery curves of the ravines that seem to swallow up the dacoits, their habit of announcing their presence on loudspeakers, a massacre that leads to a police clampdown. But Paan Singh Tomar doesn’t sock you in the gut like Bandit Queen did, partly because none of the supporting characters have enough flesh on them. The villains are especially non-descript, nasty but not menacing.
Paan Singh Tomar has good intentions but not enough emotional heft. I wanted to feel more. But what Dhulia and Irrfan do give us is a fascinating character who was at once, complex and childlike. He makes it worth watching.