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.