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Movie Review: Paan Singh Tomar (Hindi) 147

A rural setting, horses, dacoits and guns or so was the popular Bollywood theme during the 70’s and the 80’s. With the typical good guys vs. bad theme, ‘Sholay’ ranks highest on recall. But, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ differs from the rest. It presents the other side of the story, a disturbing tale of a disciplined soldier and a national athlete who is dumped by the system and forced into a path of violence.

While the makers don’t call it an exact biopic, the film is reportedly based on the true story of the soldier turned rebel and that Dhulia heard about that story while working as a casting director on the sets of ‘Bandit Queen’ in Chambal. What follows is intense research, including interviews with Paan Singh’s surviving family members.

The tale begins with a journalist (Brijendra Kala) interviewing the Chambal valley’s much feared ‘baaghi’ Paan Singh (Irrfan Khan) who reminisces his life.

Cut to early post-independence era, Paan Singh is a young army recruit with a gluttunous apetite. Although disinterested in sports, he joins the sports division, the clincher being that there would be no restriction on food there.

Soon, Paan Singh’s talent as a runner is discovered by his coach who trains him for the 3000m steeplechase culminating in the protagonist becoming the national champion and record holder who represents India in the 1958 Asian Games and gold at the International defence athletics. Over time, he grows in rank and becomes a ‘subedar’.

Success apart, personal commitments lead him to early retirement and he also denies a coaching job for the services atletics team. But, fate has different plans for him as a family feud leads him to take up arms and turn into a rebel who operated near the borders of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan during 1979-81.

Since the story traverses through decades, from early post-independence days to early eighties, recreating the setting is a production nightmare. The director responds to it by restricing all scenes to village lanes, athletic stadia and the rugged terrain of Chambal. The focus, nevertheless, remains on the lead character and never does the film lose itself in sub-plots or item songs, which is otherwise typical to this genre.

Script and direction apart, what keeps the movie together are the gripping performaces by the lead actors. Irrfan Khan is said to have trained with athletes and even nursed a sports injury, the results are visible on the screen as he looks the part. He is ably supported by Mahie Gill who plays his wife and Vipin Joshi, better known for playing the demanding dad in ‘Taare Zameen Par’ plays Major Masand.

Befittingly, the film ends with a tribute to India’s unsung athletic heroes who died penniless including one who sold his gold medal. Indirectly, the film critiques our country’s poor sports administration and takes a massive dig at the lacunae in law enforcement which could turn a sportsman/ soldier into a criminal.

It goes without saying that in our country, we hardly know any sport outside Cricket. I’m sure that before this movie released, most of us never cared to know what ‘steeplechase’ was. As an aftereffect of this movie, hope somebody wakes up and chooses to train talented sportsmen from interior parts of the country!

As of now, the film is already successful. If you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you watch it before it exits the big screen. Irrfan Khan makes it totally worthwhile!

Rating 7/10: Irrfan Khan’s efforts pay off as he delivers a gripping performance!

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