2 March 2012

Paan Singh Tomar: Not just another daku film

A young army jawaan returns two days late from his leave. Army discipline requires that he be punished, so he is told to pick up his luggage and run ten times round the ground. This is the sort of scene that would normally be evidence of the hero’s gruelling training, or perhaps the injustice of his lot. In Tigmanshu Dhulia’s film, though, our hero finishes his rounds so fast and so effortlessly that his commanding officer refuses to believe he’s actually done them. Do another ten, then, he says, looking on as the lanky young man from Morena runs merrily around the ground ten more times without the slightest sign of exhaustion. “It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone actually enjoying a punishment,” says the incredulous officer.

This is but the first of the wonderful anecdotes out of which Tigmanshu Dhulia has crafted Paan Singh Tomar: the tale of a man who first earned fame as a steeplechase champion and then, in a strange twist of fate, notoriety as a dreaded dacoit. Dhulia first encountered the tragic story of Tomar while in Chambal on the sets of Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen(1994), for which he was Casting Director. Now, 18 years and four feature films later, he has finally managed to bring Tomar’s story to the screen.

The ravines on either side of the Chambal river – Chambal ki ghaati – are legendary for having sheltered a steady stream of dacoits, men who may have been villains in the eyes of the state but who often cultivated a Robin Hood aura and laid out an alternative model of justice, terrorising the rich and impressing the poor. Sultana Daku, who was captured by the British in the 1920s, was the subject of many folk songs and one of the most famous nautankis ever (and in the 70s a pale shadow of a film). There was also Daku Man Singh, unchallenged from 1939 until his death at the hands of Gurkha troops in 1955; he, too, was the hero of a nautanki (and of a 1971 Babubhai Mistry film starring Dara Singh). In fact, Hindi cinema is replete with dakus – sometimes playing the most villainous of villains – most famously Gabbar Singh in Sholay (1975) – but sometimes emerging as more complicated figures evoking audience sympathy: think of Dilip Kumar in Ganga Jamuna (1961), Sunil Dutt in Mother India (1957) or Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), or even Vinod Khanna’s star-making role in Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971).

What Dhulia does with Paan Singh Tomar, though, is to thwart any filmi expectations you might have. There are no fiery tilaks, no pagdis, no dishonoured sisters, not even an item number in the daku’s lair. Tomar’s tale is so vivid and strange that Dhulia needs only to stick close to life to create the most marvelous fiction. And this he does with impeccable felicity.

Opening in 1980 when a stuttering local journalist (the dependable Brijendra Kala) manages to get an interview – the privilege of an audience, really – with the feared Paan Singh, the film moves swiftly into flashback. It is superbly structured, the first half recreating how the young Bengal Engineers recruit grew into an international level athlete, and the second showing the irrevocable transformation of a soldier and sportsman into a bandit.

Dhulia’s brilliance is in making it clear that Paan Singh does not, in either case, actively set out to become what he does; it is circumstances that drive him. Poverty sends him into the army; a simple hunger for unlimited rations drives him into the Sports section; humiliation at the hands of the very state that he has served pushes him to rebel against it.

And yet Dhulia’s tale is by no means about coincidences. It is as if the seeds of a man’s many possible futures lie dormant within him, waiting for a combination of historical accident and individual action to bring them to fruition. In one of the very first scenes, for example, we see a suspicious superior officer ask Paan Singh if he or his family have ever had any run-ins with the law. “Ham ka hamaare mama tak ka nahi hua hai,” says Paan Singh, with a straightforward pride that his lineage will not let him hide. “The police never manage to catch [us].”

It is the greatest strength of this biopic that it comes as close as it is possible to come to showing us, as if from within, the simplicity – almost inevitability – of every decision taken by a man whose life, seen from without, seems utterly contrarian.

Like its central character, the film’s cinematography is unflashily evocative, moving between the calm, verdant green of the army cantonment (Dhulia and his cinematographer Aseem Mishra shot in Roorkee, where Paan Singh actually served) and the dry, dusty browns of the Northern Madhya Pradesh villages and ravines. There is much pleasure to be derived from the visual detailing – the hundreds of flies buzzing around the petha in a sweet shop, the man shaking with fearful tears under a barber’s caress, the cows released at the opportune moment of a raid on a village in the hope that the police will not fire, for fear for commiting the sin of gau hatya – but the real masterstroke of this film is the dialogue, written by the director himself.

Tigmanshu Dhulia’s magisterial control over the cadences of North Indian speech has been admired ever since his debut Haasil (2003), a love story set amidst the nasty campus politics of his own home town, Allahabad. His 2011 offering Sahib Bibi aur Gangster did a fantastic job with dialogue, too. Here in PST, he is both at his sharpest and his most uncompromising — providing one-liners like “Beehad mein baaghi hote hain, dakait parliament mein milte hain” that will get the claps, but sticking to the harsh ‘haigo’s and soft ‘hamaai’s of an undiluted Morena-Bhind dialect.

There is some predictability built into a film like this, where you already know what happens, and the post-interval section does drag a little bit occasionally. But this is a film that you should watch not just because it is a rare treat to have a Hindi film director treat this subject with the complexity and intelligence it deserves. You should watch it simply to witness the marvellous Irrfan Khan sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime, essaying with moving simplicity the baffled rage of peacable masculinity driven inexorably to violence.

First published in Firstpost.


Aditi Sharma said...

Irrfan Khan is a terrific actor. There are a very few hindi films that have given him a role that match up with his potential. He is the Naseeruddin Shah of current generation.

Aradhye Ackshatt said...

It really was an amazing movie, with excellent acting.