Film Review: ‘Paan Singh Tomar’
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Mahi Gill, Vipin Sharma
In any Bollywood film that chronicles the life of a person that society has wronged, the treatment of that character can end up being too heroic or too sentimental. Fortunately, in Paan Singh Tomar, director Tigmanshu Dhulia’s depiction of his titular protagonist achieves a fine balance between both. Paan Singh Tomar is an unexpected little gem—an engrossing, gently and genuinely observed film whose subject is shown with a fascinating sense of empathy. As courageous as Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen in its portrayal of societal brutality, it occasionally feels like a made-for-Doordarshan TV film rather than a cinematic biopic but when it transcends its reliance on melodrama, you’re left amazed at Singh’s stubborn fearlessness in the face of hatred.
Dhulia, who was a casting director for Bandit Queen and has made a couple of hit-and-miss films (Charas, Shagird and Saheb Biwi aur Gangster) assuredly mines the drama in Paan Singh Tomar’s searing story of how injustice destroyed a young, promising athlete’s career. Set in Chambal and spanning three decades from 1949 to 1979, the film follows Singh through his enrolment in the Indian army and selection into its 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’s refusal to help eventually leads to him becoming an outlaw.
Paan Singh Tomar is based on a true story and the film can’t avoid a biopic’s inherent pitfall of fixating on its central character’s personal saga to wrench out tears. At the end, it essentially blames the Indian system for Tomar’s professional demise. A few scenes cross the boundaries of sentimentality, but at least Dhulia lends this film a heart without being schmaltzy. The real meat of the film comes from Khan, who despite his slight demeanour delivers a towering performance and shrewdly transforms the contrived into the sublime. He effortlessly puts a human face on the monstrous, snarling countenances of Indian anti-heroes. He ennobles the character, instead of making him the farcical Hindi hero desperate for the rah-rahs of audiences.
Of the supporting cast, Mahi Gill as Tomar’s wife and Vipin Sharma as the Army Major are first-rate in their minor roles. Also excellent is Assem Mishra’s intimate camerawork that effectively captures both Paan Singh’s dejection and wrath, and provides gritty 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 festivals two years ago; it’s fortunate that it has finally arrived in cinemas here because it deserves multiple viewings and all the accolades it can gather.