Early on in the film Paan Singh Tomar a journalist is jauntily divulging to a paanwala how he's going to be famous soon. The next scene reveals how he has landed his life's coup by securing a first interview with a famous dacoit. Brijendra Kala does a fine impersonation of an eager newspaperman who, once in Tomar's dreaded presence, goes twitchy-eyed, lisping and head-nodding like a marionette. Expectedly, he blurts out the first question in his mind: Aap Dakait kaise bane?
Irrfan Khan, who plays the namesake protagonist, delivers a seething response: Beehad mein baaghi hote hain, dakait milte hain Parliament mein. (In Chambal there are rebels, the dacoits sit in Parliament).
Irrfan, whose eyes speak more than the combined gyrations, gesticulations and histrionics of the other two Khans, Salman and SRK, leans forward slightly and answers in a voice that makes your back furry. That pitch-perfect delivery does two things: it tells you you are in good hands, time to sit back and watch that rare Bollywood film that will not have you rolling your eyes and tuning off any time soon, and 2) if you're watching inside a cinema hall in India, this is the time when the first piercing seeti will go off, the whistle proclaiming the audience's lusty appreciation of that dialogue!
I watched it at home on DVD and felt an equivalent OMG, pinch my skin it's happening, feeling of anticipation.
Paan Singh Tomar is set in India in the immediate aftermath of Independence and ends in 1981, yet its theme of corruption, incompetence, and politics resonates with the India of today.
No wonder then that the film has wowed critics and cinegoers alike. Apparently, the director Tigmanhsu Dhulia expected the film audience to be in the 35+ age bracket and was pleasantly surprised by the 18-35 viewers who filled the cinema halls!
The movie charts the journey of Paan Singh Tomar who was born in Morena, Madhya Pradesh, joined the Indian Army in 1949, became a runner, was the 3000 meter steeple champion for seven years from 1958-1964 and yet, became the most dreaded Chambal dacoit after his retirement from the army.
What strange travesty of fate led to this? Dhulia's biopic is an insightful take on the dismal lives of our sports champions and a coruscating look at the social injustice endemic in our society. Apparently, Dhulia first heard of Tomar when he was assisting Shekhar Kapur with Bandit Queen, and he decided that one day he'd make a film on the runner who became a dacoit. That project was a journey of its own and you can read more about it here.
Paan Singh Tomar is a flawless film: tightly scripted, well directed and brilliantly acted. Not only is Irrfan Khan a national treasure (the 47-year-old trained aggressively to portray the character of a champion athlete and broke his ankle in the process), the supporting cast of actors - Mahie Gill as the wife, the Sardar coach, Vipin Sharma as Major Masand - is terrific. Bundeli, the language used in the film, is, refreshingly, a dialect of Hindi that is true to the region. Dhulia ensured that the film carries English-language subtitles, a first for a Hindi film in India - that no doubt helped the young multiplex urban audience to connect with the film.
I'll leave you with a particularly poignant scene in the film where Paan Singh Tomar in his dacoit avatar confronts the cousin who was the reason he took to dacoity. Tomar wants to understand what was in the mind of this relative, behind his brutality and injustice, to fight which Paan Singh had to renounce his orderly life of army and athletics. The cousin is cowering as Irrfan Khan asks: Je baat ka jawaab kaun dego? And you know, those red-rimmed soulful bewildered eyes are asking that question of us audience, on behalf of Paan Singh Tomar and every Indian whom our society has denied their rightful place.
Watch the film guys, it is that winning combination that entertains and enlightens.