“Paan Singh Tomar”… Rebel with a cause

Posted on March 20, 2012


In a small sense, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar is the twisted mirror-image of Mani Ratnam’s Guru. Both films pivot around protagonists who come into their own after Independence, young men from a young India, and both are disillusioned by the System, by a social reality that just won’t let them be – but they respond in different ways. Gurukant Desai is smart enough to operate within the boundaries of law. He greases palms and he wiggles through a number of constitutional loopholes, but he never does anything outright illegal (at least the way the film submits his story to us). Paan Singh Tomar, on the other hand, isn’t as clever. When his attempts to do things the right way, the legal way, fail, he picks up a gun and becomes a bandit. The irony is delicious. Gurukant Desai, a bandit in many ways, was hailed as a hero. Paan Singh Tomar, a real national hero, was denounced as a bandit and consigned to the trash heap of history.

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Dhulia dusts off this tragic memory and lovingly resurrects Paan Singh Tomar in a flavourful film that, the premise of social iniquity dispatching an all-too-ordinary man to an outlaw existence apart, bears little resemblance to the bandit movies we know from Hindi cinema. It isn’t just the absence of horses and longing duets like Kis kaaran naiyya doli, but the absence of a clean-cut rationale for the question a journalist (Brijendra Kala, whose fleshy mid-section is worked into an amusing running gag) tentatively puts forth to Paan Singh (Irrfan) in 1980: “Aap dacait kaise bane?” Paan Singh deflects this inquiry with a self-aggrandizing snatch of grandiloquence, pointing out that only the parliament has dacaits, and that Bihar has baaghis, rebels. But later in the film (and earlier in the story, which is narrated as a series of flashbacks, beginning in 1950), we realise that he himself has no answer to this question, which is why his furious entreaty to the man, his dadda, who forced him onto this path is simply, “Jawaab do,” answer me.

Paan Singh is a perennially hungry soldier in the army who discovers that there is no rationing of food if he involves himself in sports, and in one of those steeplechase events, when an excited coach spurs him with insults to his mother, he takes offence. He worships his mother (and he compares his country to his mother). Is the reason he transformed into a dacoit, then, the bludgeoning of his frail mother by members of his extended family? Or is the reason genetic, the result of hero-worshipping an uncle who was a dacoit in the Chambal and who taught him to wield Mark 3 rifles? Did Paan Singh, as a dacoit, embrace the chance to finally fight a real and tangible enemy because he wasn’t allowed, on account of his being a sportsperson, to fight for the army, thus reduced to treating his khel ka maidan as a jung ka maidan? Was the persecution at the hands of this story’s villain simply the last straw, the final frustration in life filled with frustrations? Or is it simply destiny that a man doomed to the fringes of the army is now banished to the fringes of society, of life?

Whatever the reason, there is no self-pity, and that is another way Paan Singh Tomar departs from our earlier films about dacoits. Except in the scene where he demands an answer – “jawaab do” – Paan Singh is stoic about his lot in life, and in this, he may have found inspiration in his wife Indra (Mahi Gill, who seems to have become to the multiplex-Bollywood indie-film movement what Parker Posey was to independent Hollywood productions of the 1990s.) She is no pushover. When her husband returns after yet another long stretch away and offers to help her with household chores, she shoves him aside, saying that she’s gotten used to doing things alone. Later, in a moment that’s as funny as it’s pathetic, she confesses that she doesn’t like him running in shorts because other women can glimpse his legs. And when he goes to Tokyo to participate in a championship and returns with a photograph alongside a Japanese woman who – perhaps playfully, perhaps not – claims she loves him, Indra’s annoyance is blisteringly apparent.

And yet, despite this love, despite this possessiveness, she has made her peace with his being only a peripheral presence in her life. Indra places great faith in an astrologer who tells her that Paan Singh is destined to be a wanderer, and so she reconciles herself to a life like the women in Kerala who’ve learnt to live alone because their men are away making money in the Gulf. Those were different times, when men worked outside – not just outside the home but sometimes outside the village – and women stayed inside, and there is a touching allusion to this reality when Paan Singh announces to his army mates, “Hamari wife ko beti hui hai,” that his wife has had a daughter. It doesn’t occur to him to include himself in this momentous event, unlike the modern, metrosexual husband in Meghna Gulzar’s Filhaal, who stood beside his wife and proclaimed proudly, “We’re pregnant.” Along with the insinuations of the astrologer, this natural distance between men and women of the time has taught Indra to accept a less-than-perfect domestic situation, and when Paan Singh becomes a dacoit, he makes a similar peace with a less-than-perfect social situation.

I wish, though, that this transition had been detailed more convincingly. Paan Singh Tomar is split into two too-neat halves – one might say BC and AD, Before Chambal and After Dacoity. The first half details the rise of the sportsperson, with each major race giving us insights into his psyche. We learn that sports, at first, are simply a means to an end: an endless supply of food. But as he discovers how good he is – first at the 5000m (which he gives up, owing to a touchingly personal request from his coach, which speaks of his goodness and consideration for others), then at the steeplechase – he takes his training seriously. He wins great honours for the nation, all the while demonstrating his character quirks – that he won’t stand for his mother being insulted (even if this insult is wrapped in a casual cussword); that he’s a creature of habit who, when told he cannot wear canvas shoes and must compete with these newfangled shoes with spikes, would rather run barefoot; that he’s fiercely driven, and can will himself to win even when competing with much younger athletes.

Paan Singh Tomar works best – in these early portions – as a character study of a character who’s quite difficult to study. Irrfan has always had this bewildered air about him, as if he’d just arrived from an alien planet and was attempting to get used to the manners and mores of a brand new world, and he uses this distanced quality to excellent effect. The character is almost entirely laid out for us through his actions – and yet, his motivations remain muddy. (Perhaps I should say that despite my logical understanding that this is a character who cannot be easily explained, my emotional self kept demanding, “Jawaab do.”) When Paan Singh becomes a much-dreaded bandit and visits his former coach, and the latter asks him why he came, risking arrest, he says simply, “Yaad aa gayi.” You may wonder why he doesn’t do the same with his estranged wife, drop in unannounced and say, “Yaad aa gayi.” Are we to infer that his sporting career mattered more, that his life in the army left behind more lasting memories than his life at home?

Why does he choose to give an interview to the journalist when he knows he’s a wanted man? And what makes a man so apparently laidback exact such terrible vengeance on a village that betrayed him, where he murders nine men in cold blood because, as he explains, “Nihatte they par nirdosh nahin”? (They were unarmed but not innocent.) How does Paan Singh reconcile his ambivalence about the life he’s chosen – “Koi aadmi khushi se baaghi nahin banta,” he says, and later, he warns his recruits, “Baaghi banoge to maroge” – with his need to continue with that life even after he’s avenged himself on the man who wronged him? Did he, for a single second, contemplate giving up this life, escaping with his wife to a distant land, where he could sit back and dig into unending bowls of ice cream? (That’s one of his favourite foods, and it has a deep personal significance, having established his standing as a sportsperson in a superior’s eyes.)

These deliberate gaps in character don’t take away from the central performance, but they do take away from a film that – in any case – suffers in the second half due to its predictability. (The unique first half, on the other hand, is a gold medallist right through.) It’s in the post-interval portions that Irrfan’s life as a dacoit is showcased, and I found it a little difficult to swallow the amiable, principled, slightly naive man from the first half as a dreaded dacoit wanted in three states, who’s not just a kidnapper and a ransom-extracter, but a cold-blooded killer. And yet, this is a true story, and, as the cliché goes, stranger than fiction. Perhaps that’s why the man was so fascinating – because he was an unreadable cipher, filled with all these contradictions. I couldn’t help wondering if we’d be so willing to overlook his opaqueness had we been told that this was pure fiction. Would we, then, demand a more convincing stretch of transition, so that it didn’t look like major life decisions were made during the interval, while we were away?

Knowing that he has a strong story – or at least a story with a strong central hook – Dhulia plays it straight, with a simple narrative of a present-day life punctuated with flashbacks. And he can’t resist a bit of mythologizing (which, in any case, is inevitable; dacoits, after all, were the most lionised of locals). Whenever we cut to the past (in one instance, after a brief shot of a Ganga ki Saugandh poster), people talk about Paan Singh Tomar or read about him in the newspapers, both as a sportsman and a dacoit. (He feels, though, that he is more recognised as the latter than he ever was as the former, which allows Dhulia to tack on, at the end, an entirely warranted plea to remember our sportspeople who do not play cricket or tennis.) And when we first meet Paan Singh, along with the journalist who sets out to interview him, the poor man is practically frozen with fear. He touches Paan Singh’s feet and calls it a darshan, and he seats himself on the ground as Irrfan drapes his languid self on as majestic a chair as the circumstances will allow. (And again, I wondered if the character needed to have been shaped with a little more dread, a little more awe, a little less lifelike and a little more a creature of myth.)

It is only in the last stretch that Dhulia loses his grip on the material, shifting into a slightly different kind of movie than one suggested by the tone of the events so far. Paan Singh’s fleeing from the police is intercut with his participation in various earlier races. We’re meant to think that this is one last chance for glory, one final dash to the finishing line, but the equating of life to a race comes off as both forced and facile. But at least on one level, Dhulia has earned these indulgences. He could have so easily done an Ashutosh Gowariker and dulled us to death with earnestness (yes, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se, I’m thinking about you), but he gives us, instead, a film that – even if it doesn’t entirely reveal itself and stays somewhat locked inside its protagonist’s head – throbs with heart and humour and a knowing appreciation of life in the hinterlands. Paan Singh Tomar, at the end, is like Paan Singh Tomar. It may be impossible to fully know him, but it’s impossible not to like him.

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi