In any Bollywood film that chronicles a character which society has wronged, the heroic and the oversentimental are very close cousins, but director Tigmanshu Dhulia is generous enough here to offer us a balanced look at both. Paan Singh Tomar is an unexpected little gem – an engrossing, gently and genuinely observed film whose subject is a fascinating display of empathy.
As courageous as Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen in its depiction of Indian societal brutality, Paan Singh Tomar occasionally feels like a made-for-Doordarshan-TV film than a cinematic biopic. But when it does transcend its weepy reliance on melodrama, you're left amazed at the real life protagonist’s stubborn fearlessness in the face of hatred.
Dhulia, who was a casting director for Bandit Queen has made hit and miss films (Saheb Biwi aur Gangster, Shagird, Haasil) mines the drama assuredly in Paan Singh Tomar – it’s a searing story of how injustice flattened a young, promising athlete. Set in Chambal in a post-independence India, the film follows the titular character through his ascension of joining the Indian army and being drafted in the sports team. Tomar wins multiple championships and breaks all sorts of national records despite running barefoot, and his promoters bill him as unstoppable. His heroic career grinds to a halt when he is forced to quit the armed forces and return to his destitute village to settle a family dispute. Things take a turn when his mother is killed and the police refuse to be helpful, and he eventually crosses over to anarchy.
Paan Singh Tomar is based on a true story but it also works as an allegory of the typical Indian lower class struggle, and it scores points with concrete evidence and instances of the horrible treatment of sportspersons in India. It is true that the film can't avoid the biopic pitfall of fixating on its central character’s personal tragedies to wrench out tears, and by the end it's essentially blaming the Indian system for Tomar’s professional demise. There are the usual lump-in-throat facial shots of Irfan in all his sympathetic glory, and a few scenes cross the boundaries of sentimentality, but at least director Dhulia lends this film an actual heart.
The real meat of the movie comes from Irrfan, who despite his slight demeanor gives a towering performance and shrewdly transforms the contrived into the sublime. He effortlessly puts a human face on the monstrous snarling countenances of Indian antiheroes. He ennobles the character, instead of making him the farcical Hindi hero desperate for the rah-rahs of audiences. And Dhulia deserves credit not just for the simple fact that he made a great movie, but also because he let Irrfan run away with it.
Of the supporting cast, Mahi Gill as Tomar’s wife, Vipin Sharma as the Army Major and Brijendra Kala as a reporter are swell in their minor roles. Also excellent is Assem Mishra’s intimate camerawork that captures Paan Singh’s dejection and wrath and the sweaty glimpses of lawless India that is too often depicted in Bollywood as a land bereft of humanity. Paan Singh Tomar was screened at international film circuits two years ago, but was locked away from theatrical release until now. It is fortunate that it has finally arrived because it deserves multiple viewings and all the accolades it can gather.
(First published in MumbaiBoss)