A homespun biopic of an unsung hero of India, Paan Singh Tomar takes you through the ravines of Madhya Pradesh and parts of rural India, giving a sneak-peak beyond the Chambal valley. Travel with a local fauji as he sprints to national level athletics championships before taking up a gun and dying valiantly by it.
The plot: Straight-talking Paan Singh Tomar (Irfan Khan) has a straight-nosed agenda as he starts his life as a low-ranking sepoy in the army when his unbelievable speed as a runner finds him playing national level athletics and turns him into a steeplechase champ. But his flying start is grounded when jealous elements from his village usurp his land and Paan Singh now has to run door-to-door in his quest to get back his land officially. But, as it is said in the movie, in India a dacoit gets more attention from people who matter than a national level athlete. A champion’s request lies wedged between layers of red-tape and corruption, the authorities waking up from their somnolence only when there are a couple of dead bodies around. Paan Singh has no option but to do something against his grain – pick up a gun and rebel. He forms his gang of ‘dacoits’, locates himself in the interiors of Chambal and starts his work, ensuring that no innocent is ever killed. But with life on the run, there’s no looking back. Paan Singh must complete this race for justice even if he has to die at the finishing line.
The good: The crew deserves a special mention for the amount of research they have done to get credible information and authentic lowdown on the personality of the champ-turned-dacoit. It is said that Tigmanshu Dhulia (director) and his team managed to shoot at the same locations where the actual meetings of Paan Singh happened in Chambal valley. Stay on and watch the end credits roll as there’s a mention of several such unsung sports heroes who have died heart-wrenchingly unrewarded. Tigmanshu Dhulia has done fair justice to the valiance of Paan Singh as he picks up a deeply buried biography and is honest with it, adding no colorful feathers to make it more cinematically/commercially appealing. There is authenticity in the ambience and language, with spurts of entertainment like the scene where Paan Singh makes a corrupt inspector go on his knees and apologize to the police uniform.
Coming to the performances, Irfan Khan simply becomes Paan Singh like only a veteran can, bringing out the inner turmoil of the champ-dacoit with subtlety. His special forte of switching emotions with a poker face makes Khan’s Paan Singh a delight. Mahie Gill has barely anything to do, as the wife of the main player is overtaken by the awesome character of Paan Singh. The small town journalist played by Brijendra Kala is humorous and convincing.
The climax of the film brings out the admirable qualities of the valiant champ, as the upright man who has become a slave of his circumstances, gives up his life for his honesty. The three balls of lights hovering above Irfan as he is dying, add a metaphorical element, as flashbacks of the three phases of his life play out in front of him.
The bad: The film is longer than what one would have comfortably enjoyed, since at quite a few points it gets monotonous and moves on in the same rhythm. It neither goes up in volume nor goes down in energy, maintaining a rhythm that becomes a drone. Compared to Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster, there’s no spunk in the dialogues.
The film’s first half appears very structured, it’s in the second half where the film picks up and brings out the rebel and his guns of fury. At many points it gets predictable, there isn’t any suspense element or twists or turns as one would want to see in the gritty realities of Chambal Valley. The film also has a documentary-ish feel.
Overall: It is a well-attempted honest biopic of a man with a personality far wider than 70mm celluloid. It is not a great cinematic experience but is an important watch to learn about one of our finest champions and his untold story.
– Pooja Thakkar