When there is a union of a production house credited with providing a great platform for quality cinema and a filmmaker with a known track record to try and push the envelope on a consistent basis, expectations are obviously high. Add to this the press coverage it has been generating from the festival circuit for some time now and bytes about the physical challenges undergone by Irfan Khan. All in all this is one movie which has had the discerning Indian movie viewer biting his nails off in expectation. Does ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ match up to all this hype? Is it really ground breaking stuff? The answer is an overwhelming yes.
The outline of the story is pretty well known by now. Paan Singh Tomar sketches on celluloid the life and times of a unsung hero in Indian athletics who by a tragic twist of events ends up as a dreaded dacoit in the Chambal valley and eventually dies by the gun. Paan Singh joins the Indian army as a eager young recruit and then goes on to become a 7 time national champion in the 3000 metre steeple chase event(in the 50s and 60s) thanks to his extremely voracious appetite for running and eating. Pressing family commitments force him to take early retirement and settle in his village. What starts of as a petty land dispute, thanks to the apathy of the law and order machinery and utter disregard for Paan Singh’s contribution to the nation , pushes the protagonist to the brink and forces him to take up arms.
Let me tell you right at the outset that the first half of the movie is probably the best 60 odd minutes of cinema I have seen in a long long time. In a day and age when 3-4 excellent scenes are hard to come by in any of the regular fare dished out each Friday, there are more than half a dozen in the first half alone. To quote just a few of them, the enquiry scene between Paan Singh and his military superiors, the tender romantic moments with his wife(played so subtly and beautifully by Mahie Gill) and a critical sequence in the police station are just beyond words. In my opinion, what graduates this from good cinema to great cinema is the depth provided in seemingly simple scenes to add meat and layers to the characters and the story. The character graph of Irfan from an innocent village guy in the army to a confident athlete and then eventually on to a man pushed to the brink is so unhurried and seamless that you just cannot single out the actor or the creator of the role for lavish praise and reward. Not to mention the subtle moments of brilliance and contributions by each and everyone in the cast. Be it the equation between him and his coach and superiors, his gradual loss of faith in the judicial system,his response to people who betray him or his adamant attitude to see his dacoit stint through to the end, come what may.
If at all there is some nitpicking to do, the film suffers a bit from the classic biopic syndrome as there are some moments in the second half when you feel like a few moments keep restating the obvious and understood. This is also because of the extremely high standards the film sets itself in the first half. Case in point is some sequences prior to the climax when you feel the drama button is pushed relatively harder in comparison to the rapid proceedings prior to that. Moreover, to me the film probably raises larger questions about the absolute necessity of an interval and a whole paradigm of cinema built around it.
Performances wise, there is absolutely nothing negative to be held against anybody. Though it is largely Irfan’s film, Mahie Gill as his wife, Vipin Sharma as Major Masand and Rajendra Gupta in a small role as his coach are all equally outstanding in delivering whatever is expected out of them. Even the lesser known artists as his gang members or random village folk all gell so perfectly into the canvas. Background music is very apt for most parts of the movie, cinematography does total justice to the setting and editing is very efficient and keep s the movie at optimum length and pace. Dialogues obviously play a large part in delivering home the complete impact of Paan Singh’s saga. Be it the ‘Bihad mein baaghi hote hain’ one or the ‘Gali dene wale ko goli marte hain….’ beauty they just keep coming relentlessly at you.
In summary, ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ is one of those rare pieces of cinematic brillaince churned out from the Walmart of Bollywood. Don’t fret over the serious premise or the absence of an A-lister. Go for its tribute to the unsung sports heroes of the country, honest portrayal of the apathy towards law and order in vast parts of the country and last but not the least Irfan Khan in a role he was probably born to play. If not for anything else, trust me its worth watching multiple times just for its rapid fire first half. 4 stars for me, no less.