Film: Paan Singh Tomar
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Mahie Gill, Vipin Sharma
We don’t do biopics well. Most Hindi films that chronicle lives either involve the jingoistic re-telling of freedom fighters (including around 78 Bhagat Singh movies, on last count) or the way Ram Gopal Varma does it (Company, Sarkar, Rakhta Charitra etc). Barring Ketan Mehta’s Sardar and, to an extent, Gulzar’s Aandhi, none comes to mind. Until now.
Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar is the best biopic you’ll have watched in Hindi cinema, and Dhulia gets almost everything right. The casting, for example. The film is about a sportsperson who became a dacoit -- a fascinating plot and part -- and Irrfan Khan dives into it like Tomar did in his pursuit of excellence as an athlete (he’s hungry, literally and otherwise). From a hot-blooded, simple-in-his-ways 20-something to the older, more calculated Tomar, Irrfan delivers a performance that would leave most contemporaries envious. It’s a part that requires a display of acting chops ‘stars’ would have foregone to concentrate on marketing campaigns; it also requires a commanding screen presence and a believable heroic quality. Irrfan has all those. In Irrfan, Dhulia gives us an unlikely hero -- a baaghi. Just to watch the actor create magic on screen, the film is unmissable.
Paan Singh Tomar mustn’t have been an easy film to make. It traverses Tomar’s life from 1950 to 1981, including his enrollment in the army, his participation in the steeplechase event, and his eventual reign of terror as a dacoit in the Chambal Valley. Spanning different genres -- sports film/spaghetti western-styled dacoit drama/biopic -- the material must have been exhausting to channel into a compelling script. Dhulia rises to the challenge, along with co-writer Sanjay Chauhan, penning a story that has traces of a typical masala movie from the ‘70s, but camouflages the larger-that-life aspect with some rooted characters and real dialogues. The film is full of witty repartees, most of them by Tomar, the banter lightening the mood even as the mood remains sombre, several times.
The film has the look and feel of an indie -- the grainy look probably a requirement, given the small budget, but lending the film a different appeal -- with most actors conversing in the local language, something a mainstream film would have shied away from. Sandeep Chowta's background score breathes life into the narrative. Paan Singh Tomar does begin to feel a little heavy towards the end, and lengthy, but when you think about it, there’s little that could have been left out. Biopics tend to exhaust you, but Dhulia ensures there’s no dull moment.
Tigmanshu Dhulia's Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster was among last year's better films. Craftily-written and well-enacted, we finally got a taste of what Dhulia could achieve as filmmaker after a promising debut in Haasil. His best film, though, had been ready much before SBAG even went into production. A film the ads of which now carry the line, ‘From the director of Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster.’ This film, Paan Singh Tomar, is Dhulia’s real triumph as a filmmaker.