Thursday, March 08, 2012

Loneliness of a long-distance baaghi: thoughts on Paan Singh Tomar

Watching Tigmanshu Dhulia’s excellent Paan Singh Tomar – based on the real-life story of an Army cadet-turned-steeplechase runner-turned-Chambal dacoit – I was more than once reminded of Peter Carey’s great novel True History of the Kelly Gang, told (mostly) in the voice of the 19th century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

It isn’t so much a question of the superficial similarities between the two stories: the social milieu (a place where modernity cautiously brushes against the law of the jungle) that becomes a springboard for crime; the encounters with apathetic policemen and other authority figures who are unwilling (or unable) to provide even-handed justice. Nor is it particularly relevant whether either work is a strictly factual account of its subject’s life. The real achievement is the creation of a believable voice: just as Carey’s book was written in a breathless, unpunctuated, colloquial style to suggest how the barely literate Kelly might have told his story, Dhulia’s nuanced screenplay (with its pitch-perfect use of the dialects of rural Madhya Pradesh) does something comparable for a man who, at the end of his life, has no one left to speak for him. 

In both cases, we get a portrait so internally authentic – of a person, the times he lives in, the world he comes from, the rituals and inner workings of that world and how they shape his character – that everything in the narrative seems organic and natural. Paan Singh Tomar doesn’t heavy-handedly create sympathy for a wronged hero (in the tradition of the larger-than-life mainstream Hindi film) – but then it doesn’t need to. Getting to know the man this well is enough.


When we first meet Paan Singh (Irrfan Khan), it is 1980 and he is a middle-aged dacoit leader (though he calls himself a baaghi or rebel). A small-time reporter has secured an interview with him and the visual grammar of their first moments together makes the hierarchy clear: Paan Singh is shown in extreme close-up, the reporter in conventional medium shot; there stands the stammering supplicant looking for a story and here sits the fearsome bandit who might deign to give him one (and even allow him to live to tell it). At this point it seems probable that Paan Singh Tomar will become an exercise in myth-making, but that isn’t how it turns out. Flashbacking to 1950 – when Paan Singh is a young army recruit – the film quickly demythologises him (and it becomes clear that those unsettling close-ups only represented the reporter’s fevered view of the brigand he has come to interview – we aren’t meant to see Paan Singh as an intimidating figure). What now unfolds is a story about a man led on a strange journey by the currents of personality and circumstance.

Pehli baar dekha koi sazaa ka mazaa le raha hai,” (“It’s the first time I’ve seen someone enjoying his punishment”) observes a Major as he watches Paan Singh doing the rounds at training time. The young man’s decision to take up sports is presented as being driven simply by hunger (sportspeople get more generous servings of food), but soon deeper layers to his character are revealed. The first time he sets a national record, there is a suggestion that he was fuelled more by anger than by ambition – because his garrulous coach casually used a maa ki gaali while spurring him on from the sidelines. When the race is over, Paan Singh hugs his coach, but not before delivering a quick, quiet admonition: “Hamaare yahaan maa ki gaali ka jawaab goli se dete hain” (“Where I come from, when someone insults our mother, we reply with bullets.”) In a scene that is on the face of it about a sportsman doing something inspirational, we fleetingly get a sense of a man with a capacity for violence, even if it comes from righteous indignation.

Much later, these emotions resurface when he goes to the police to get justice during a land dispute, and finds his track accomplishments counting for nothing. “Desh ke liye faltu bhaage hum?” he asks the officer who has disrespectfully flung his medals away. This might ring a little false, since Paan Singh’s decision to start running wasn’t – initially at least – a patriotic one. But we come to see him as a man who learns something about his own motives and capabilities as he goes along. He is individualistic but has strong ties to family and land; proud and opinionated, but capable of following his intuition in a given situation. A momentarily surprising – but ultimately believable – scene is his reaction when his running coach pleads with him to leave the 5000m race because another competitor (into whose family the coach’s daughter is married) must be allowed to win. You might expect a man like Paan Singh not to accede to such a base, cringing request, but he thinks about it for a second, cocks his head and replies with a simple “Guru ke beti ke liye angaar pe bhi chalega.” (“For my teacher’s daughter, I’ll even walk on burning coals.”) It’s a small but significant moment where you can almost see the wheels turning in his head: two principles are in opposition here, he chooses the one that has greater emotional resonance for him at that moment.

You need a mighty performer to pull such scenes off with conviction, and Irrfan Khan is (along with Dhulia’s script) one of the two pillars of this film. Irrfan’s repertoire includes a deadpan mode that I find very compelling. It can be drolly effective in comedy (see Life in a Metro or even Billu) but terrifying in intense dramatic scenes where he seems at times to be in communion only with himself, cut off from the hurly-burly around him. A couple of moments in this film reminded me of the fatalistic grandeur of that wonderful scene in Maqbool where Irrfan’s Macbeth keeps asking the policemen-witches “Main doobunga ke bachoonga?” (“Will I drown or survive?”), the haunted, faraway expression in those bulbous eyes suggesting he has already moved into another realm, seeing things no one else can see, aware of his final destiny.


But if Paan Singh Tomar has the timbre of a Shakespearean tragedy, it doesn’t strain self-consciously to be one. Though based on a remarkable, "stranger than fiction" true story that spanned decades, it consistently stays in the moment – it doesn’t reach for grand epiphanies (except, arguably, in its final scene, which brings together the strands of its protagonist’s colourful past in a too-literal depiction of “his life flashed before his eyes”, and also includes a brief-Hamlet-Horatio moment). There is a well-thought-out understatement in scenes that could easily have been overplayed for dramatic effect, such as when Paan Singh tosses off bon mots (apart from the Army everyone in this country is a thief, he says, and on another occasion “Kitaab kum, aadmi padha hai”). The running sequences too mostly avoid the clichés associated with the Inspirational Sports Film – and that’s particularly apt for this story, set at a time where athletic achievements get hardly any glamorous media coverage or long-term respect. (This is also why the scene where a young Japanese fan gushes to our bashful hero that she “loves him” is strangely moving.)

Of course, a “bigger” narrative does exist for someone who chooses to look for it: consider Paan Singh’s journey from being the idealistic youngster of 1950, serving his newly independent nation, to the hunted baaghi of 1980 who feels let down by his country – musing sarcastically that he got little recognition when he was running for India in international sports events, but his name plays over the radio now that injustice has forced him into a life of crime. (Semi-serious subtextual analysis alert: in the film’s final stretch, as Paan Singh nears the finish line
of his life’s race, we hear a news item – on a radio – about the death of the actress Nargis. I wondered if this might have been a sly reference to the end of the Mother India ideal for our embittered protagonist.)

Late in the film, when a group of policemen led by Inspector Rathore (the always-excellent Zakir Hussain) rescue a terrified kidnap victim, the line “Dar mat beta, yeh police ke vardi mein police hee hain” (“These really are cops in police uniforms”) is said for humorous effect. But Paan Singh Tomar is about a world where dacoits and armymen, rebels and cops, are forged from the same human materials and life experiences – and where only very minor variances in temperament and personal circumstance can make all the difference. Though the point isn’t thickly underlined, a few visual links are made between these sets of people. One striking scene near the end has Paan Singh and his doomed men walking upright in single formation, their reflections in the lake below; we could easily be looking at army cadets on the march, and not just because they are wearing khaki. (In any case, their “operations” have to be as disciplined and as strongly built on trust as any in the Army – when things fall apart, it is inevitably caused by a betrayal from within.) The last meeting between the fugitive and his son – who has joined the Army – is another subtle reminder of what the former’s life might have been like if only a few chips had fallen differently.

And yet, the chasm in this world between those who represent authority (and who therefore have the weight of the law on their side, even if they are crooked or cowardly) and those who live outside the law (because they see no other way of surviving) is so vast as to be unbridgeable. Even Paan Singh Tomar, champion steeplechaser, can cross that divide only once; he can’t repeat the feat in the opposite direction.


  1. Another interesting aspect was his sense of right and wrong - when he justifies the massacre to the reporter, and insists that he is not a murderer.

    Also, that line about "faltu" running for the country got me thinking - how old is the expression "faltu"? Isn't it a 90s creation?

  2. "In communion with himself" is excellently put Jai. It is indicative of a writer who pays attention to what he is saying.

    I do know of any other actor of Irrfan's generation who does contemplative scenes so effectively. Although I do not like anything Mira Nair makes, Khan had those terrific contemplative, ruminant moments in 'The Namesake.'

  3. bravo Jai.Your review's made me desperate to watch the film. It's one of the best reviews I've ever read.

    @datar: probably 'bekaar' would be better? but the dialogue would have less bite, I think.

  4. Datar: must ask someone about faltu - thanks for pointing it out.

    Mayank: yes, most of his characters have a real interiority - you feel like they have an interesting existence even outside of the actual narrative of the film, and that's quite an achievement for any actor.

    Sai: thanks! It's probably a piece that's better read after watching the film (given how much I've gone on), but glad you liked it.

  5. Wow! This post was amazing . I could even say it is (arguably) my favorite of all your posts on cinema and I have read each one of them .

    I am not much into commenting , but this time I just couldn't stop myself . Loved it absolutely .

    But , but , but... that "subtextual analysis alert" part was a bit of a bouncer . I need to read that part a few times more to understand it ...

    I am so glad I stumbled across your blog when I was randomly looking for some opinions for a particular novel many years back. Since that day ,it has consistently been a source of a welcome divergence from my monotonous office job and not to mention a useful input to read and watch books and movies resp, which have now become personal favorites.

  6. A small correction in my first response. It should read "I do not know".

  7. Wonderfully written, Jai..Maybe because it wasn't melodramatic or heroic, you don't entirely empathize with the character especially when he tries to justify the killing of the villagers..

    I was told that when the movie was screened in 2010 in one of the Film Festivals, it was much longer and unwieldy and the audience reaction was not very positive. Folks at UTV later on ensured that a great deal of editing was done to bring it to its current shape and I gather that it's made a difference - heard this from a critic who had seen it then and now.

  8. Great reading. Watched it today myself. Irrfan Khan was amazing.

  9. Aces as always, Jai. Beautiful review.

  10. E Pradeep: that's interesting - I didn't know this film was finished by 2010. Thinking about it, it's easy to imagine an earlier cut that might have been unwieldy and overexpository. Wonder if they'll include some of the deleted scenes on the DVD.

  11. Prashila, longblackveil, Pratyush: thanks very much - in the Twitter age it's nice to know someone is even still reading this thing!

    I've been hoping to get back to writing more about films (including contemporary films) but it isn't always easy to find the time or motivation. Soon, hopefully.

  12. Excellent post Jai, really enjoyed the exhaustive review. I haven't see PST yet, it is very much on my list but I have to say that I read some other reviews which were grudgingly appreciative of the film (too slow in second half being a frequent litany). Gladly, you've bolstered my hopes :)

    Irrfan (I read he's dropped the Khan from his name?) is a delight -The Namesake for me was a much better film than novel, and entirely due to Tabu and Irrfan.


  13. Re. faltu: My father grew up in Indore, and I've been hearing him and other relatives use the word as far back as I can remember. It's definitely predates the 90s.

  14. While mentioning Irrfan, I'm surprised you didn't mention "Haasil", probably Irrfan's finest work and again with the same director, which helped both of them establish as solid names for Indian cinema.

  15. Loved your review. The scene in which Irrfan is demanding answers from his almost-dead cousin is where, I thought, he makes his anguish about his playground having been taken away from him known for the first time. Up until that point, the relationship he has with the sport is strangely detached. Very moving.

  16. Great write up- Jai.Agree with Prashila that this is one of your best.
    Also, thanks for invoking that brilliant movie in the title- wonder why you didn't mention it again.It does have parallels with this one, does it not?
    Will read this again after watching the movie- which frustratingly- has still not released where I live.

  17. Jai, nitpicking here, but what do you think of the blurb in the end that says "dedicated to unsung sports heroes" (or something to that effect?). I mean, this is hardly a 'sports film'.

  18. Yayaati: while this isn't a sports film in the conventional sense, the lack of support and appreciation for athletes certainly is part of the Paan Singh story. In any case, they are free to dedicate the film to whoever they want to.

  19. Have followed your blog for many years, and increasingly look forward to your posts, as most people seem to be giving up writing longer analysis of books or movies.

    Loved this review and the movie itself, and I enjoy the way you often pick up on bits of a movie and help to see it with a viewpoint that I hadn't considered before, or something I'd felt fleetingly but not been able to express!

  20. Loved the film! Excellent casting and performances, great script and narrative. My husband made an observation about Tomar instructing his aides to release the cattle. Because many police officers (by virtue of their allegiance to their faith) wouldn't shoot cattle, this was a good battle tactic. However, in the last encounter, one of the aides says "LMG mein gurkha hain." I suppose Gurkhas are trained professional soldiers (?) who wouldn't be deterred by the idea of shooting cattle.

    If that isn't attention to detail, what is?

  21. I also wondered if life would have taken a different turn for Tomar had it not been for his voracious appetite. If he had stuck to being a soldier (instead of an athlete), he may have had an opportunity to participate in the war and engage in combat. And that may have kept his scheming cousin at bay. The guy kept taunting Tomar about being a mere runner and not a real soldier.

  22. Hi Jai,
    I'm a big fan of your reviews- both books and movies. I recently saw PST when they showed it on TV. Loved your review. I always want to go back and watch a movie again after reading your interesting tidbits. I'd missed out a few of the lines you mentioned. Maybe next time around...
    As someone mentioned, the scene where he demands answers from his cousin was great - especially, his understated reaction to one of his men shooting the cousin to death before PST was done "grilling" him.
    Re. "Faltu", my mother grew up in Bihar and I've heard her and her siblings use the word since ages...How is it a 90s creation? (Not asking you but the 1st commenter :-))
    BTW, hope you are doing well, after your recent loss. Best wishes.

  23. Thanks, Raj. I enjoyed doing this piece - though it was perhaps too much of a self-indulgence given that I did it only for the blog at a time when I had other official assignments pressing on my time.

  24. Too late to comment on this.. and I saw this movie 15-16 months ago, but do you remember the scens where the caste divide was subtly handled? The one is in the begining.. when Paan singh asks the reporter to have food. At this point, the reporter is overjoyed by the sight of the food.. and he says something to the effect ' Aaj humko bhi aapke saath roti todne ka mauka milega'. And Paan singh is put off.. he then starts eating food without offering him.
    The other scene is near the end, when the inspector is looking for somebody to set a trap for Paan singh. He visits the village, and even offers to eat food/dronk water with the lower caste old man. When it arrives, he does not pays any attention to them.

    And that is how it was handled at least till the early 90s. I know nothing after that, as I left India, and now come back only as a visitor.

    -- From THE Alcoholic.

  25. About the Subtextual Mother India comment. Spot on--even though I missed it and have to watch the film again, which I don;t mind in the least. Such a brillaint film.
    Let's talk about daku films some day. Would like to hear your take on them