Friday, March 09, 2012

Paan Singh Tomar 

Bandit King

Not that it will make any difference to bureaucrats (who don’t care), the media (that lionises cricketers) or the public (that follows the media),  but Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar is a slap on the face of all those who kill talent by ignoring it.

The film is a biopic of the multiple medal-winning athlete who was forced to become an outlaw—not a bandit, as he clarifies—because his achievements are of no use when he is faced with greedy relatives and apathetic government officials.

Army man Paan Singh (Irrfan Khan), belonged to the Chambal region of Madhya Pradesh, where outlaws abounded at one time, and many became folk heroes.  Most of them were poor farmers, who found no way out of the crushing feudal system and turned to crime. Bollywood films have made the dhoti-clad, horse-riding, Chambal Daku into an anti-Establishment icon.  That may have changed from Paan Singh’s time, but the instances of the ill-treatment of sportspersons at the hands of the bureaucracy still keep surfacing when the glamour-struck media chooses to highlight them.

Paan Singh was an ordinary soldier with extraordinary speed and stamina, who was sent to the sports side, because he wanted a better diet.  There, under the training of his coach (Rajendra Gupta), he turned into a winning athlete.

But when he retired and returned to his village, he found that his cousins had usurped his land, and neither the local cops nor the collector do anything about it. The cop is particularly insulting.  When the cousin’s men attack his home and kill his mother, Paan Singh picks up the gun, forms his gang and becomes an outlaw.

The first half of the film, that charts the rise of Paan Singh is fast-moving and inspiring.  After he becomes a bandit, the film slows down and goes into documenting the life of outlaws in the Chambal ravines.  However, Dhulia is not able to communicate to today’s audience the socio-economic, caste or political scenario of rural MP of that period,  that bred dacoits.  It also lacks in the high-powered drama of films like Mujhe Jeene Do, Dacait and Bandit Queen.

To his credit, Dhulia has made a very realistic and stirring film, without the trappings of commercial cinema—no item songs, actors who look like they belong there, the local dialect of the region, a dry, arid landscape and no romanticising the life of a bandit in the wilds. Except the needless device of having Paan Singh narrate his story to a quivering journalist (Brijendra Kala), the character is seen as an ordinary man, whose accomplishments on the track turned out to be of no value.  He does not relish violence and does not want his son to follow him.

Irrfan Khan’s marvellous performance, from a callow young man to a weathered middle-aged bandit is the mainstay of the film, since none of the other actors has as much to do. With the exception of Mahie Gill’s brief appearances as Paan Singh’s wife, the other actors are lesser known or new,  who fit their parts well.  Irrfan is always convincing, sympathetic, perfectly attuned to the evolution of the man he portrays.  His performance deserves awards, and the film deserves a watch—if only to support a good, honest film.


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