Biopics, intentionally or otherwise, tend to glorify or idolise the characters they are based on. Tigmanshu Dhulia's painstakingly researched film comes with that baggage.
Having watched an early cut during its world premiere in 2010 and coming out largely unimpressed, I almost gave this one a miss. Until I heard the film had been re-cut (Aarti Bajaj) and the score changed. I was still not sure how much it had changed because the version I watched back then was largely forgettable with a terribly manipulative background score that made you cringe. I am glad I did re-watch it because it seemed a lot more convincing this time around.
I was able to find what I missed back then. The heart of a man who believes he has been wronged by the State and strikes back. The angst of a man who hates the system for ignoring his prize-winning efforts for the country but now celebrated for his notoriety. The fate he had brought upon himself purely as a form of protest.
Biopics ride on the actors portraying the main character, and Irrfan Khan as Paan Singh Tomar makes up for what he lacks in muscle and shape required of an athlete, with rustic charm and sincerity. However, he does shine as the ageing runner and the man pushed against the wall.
Initially, we understand his rage against the system and his decision to steal from the rich and protect the poor. Like the journalist interviewing him (Brijendra Kala), we are happy to hear the story from the feared man himself, his reasoning and point of view… But only till he admits to gunning down nine unarmed villagers and insists they deserved to die.
This is the point where we stop relating to him but the director continues to tell us the story from Tomar's perspective. He continues to glorify the man who is becoming more and more trigger-happy and makes him out to be a hero who is just completing the race, the rebel who refuses to surrender to the system.
The lines sparkle with wit and wry humour and the ensemble (Zakir Hussain, Rajendra Gupta, Vipin Sharma, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mahie Gill) chips in with fantastic support. Tigmanshu mounts his canvas on a large scale and presents this rarely seen milieu in all its glory. Incidentally, he was the casting director of Bandit Queen, and has been planning this film ever since he heard of Paan Singh Tomar. So it's no surprise that the landscape comes alive with the heat and dust of the ravines, the atmospherics adding to the tension of the man on the run, constantly suspecting his own mates of trying to poison him.
It's a gritty and difficult film to make given its moral ambivalence, and full points to the makers for even attempting to tell this story about a man who couldn't do anything else but run. And be on the run.
Paan Singh Tomar
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Mahie Gill, Zakir Hussain, Brijendra Kala
Storyline: The true story of a gold-medal-winning athlete from the army who became a dreaded dacoit in Chambal
Bottomline: Riveting tribute to an unsung hero who lost his way