I watched this very disturbing movie recently. The film has won critical acclaim, and if the director’s aim was to stir the audience’s sympathy for the central character, he has succeeded more than well indeed.The details you can pick up from the links provided. First off, a salute to Irrfan (Khan): he is unquestionably the best character actor in Hindi moviedom today, and he seems to be getting better all the time. He’s done it without conventional he man/chocolate boy good looks or big family connections or money to help him, too. As with Tom Hanks and a few others, I can say I shall be glad to watch any movie if I know he is in it.
A thumbnail sketch of the plot of this biopic: Paan Singh Tomar was a real life character, a poor Kshatriya farmer who came from the hinterland of western Madhya Pradesh, joined the Indian Army (though his mama was a brigand who, he boasted, was too clever to be ever arrested), rose to the rank of subedar, shone brilliantly as a sportsman at the national level and even participated at the Tokyo Asiad. Then he got embroiled in a family quarrel over land holdings, quit the army, suffered a very rude shock when both his son and mother were brutally beaten up by hired goons and the police and district collector refused to look deeply into his complaint, and eventually turned into (yet another-) much feared dacoit of the Chambal valley. He killed and terrorized a lot of people for a while, gave a self-justifying newspaper interview which made waves, got a price on his head, managed to put his son in the army which he still revered, and was finally killed in 1981 in an encounter with police special forces after he was betrayed.
The movie deals with several important issues swiftly but expertly. How shoddily sports and sportsmen are treated in India is deeply underscored (there is a list of big achievers at the end who died in obscurity and poverty) – apparently Paan Singh’s greatest grudge was how the police treated him as an importunate nobody despite his medals, and his greatest boast (always uttered with a sad snigger-) was that everybody sat up and took notice only when he turned ‘baaghi’ (rebel) and started killing people. No wonder we do so badly at the Olympic Games: it certainly isn’t just a matter of money. And no wonder crime attracts so many in India who are in desperate straits, either. One also realizes how deeply caste and caste-based iniquity is still rooted in the social psyche of rural India. I don’t really know whether things have changed much in this regard in the thirty years since Paan Singh died; the newspapers don’t give much reason for hope. The army has been held up as the last bastion of honesty, integrity, hard work, good fellowship, patriotism and that sort of thing, and yet there are contradictions even here: Paan Singh himself tells a superior in a certain scene that there are a lot of good-for-nothings among the officers he knows (and this was as early as 1960!), and his mentors were so incredibly callous (or stupid?) that they sent him to compete in the Asiad without even telling him beforehand that he had to run not in ordinary flat-soled canvas shoes as he was used to but in spiked boots, which virtually crippled him on the track. The little romantic interludes with his very tradition-minded wife are touching. Shooting at the Roorkee cantonment and in the actual Chambal ravines has added interesting realism to the visual content.
But then I said I found it disquieting too, not least because there are different voices, and different versions of what really happened. Tomar’s (now-retired) son has said in an interview that it is the police that make dacoits in the Chambal valley (that is not really a revelation; it’s been that way for ages, since before the British came to India); he has also said that the movie is ‘85% true to life’: I wonder which 15 per cent is not. The police have been demonized in the movie, and it shows that they arrived in overwhelming force to trap and kill the dacoit (who has been portrayed as a reluctant and deeply unhappy almost-Robin Hood), so there was nothing heroic about it, just a government orchestrated massacre. On the other hand, in this interview the police officer who was in charge of the operation, DSP Mahendra Pratap Singh Chauhan (also now retired) says it was a straightforward ‘taking out’ of a notorious and unpenitent criminal who refused to surrender and for whom there is no reason to feel the slightest sympathy, regardless of his army service record and his sporting achievements. Also, that this was a ‘routine job’ for him as an anti-dacoity operative, so he has no special emotional attachments to the memory, he has not bothered to watch the movie because he is sure that a trivial criminal would be glorified to the discredit of the duly constituted arms of the law; indeed, he sounds almost proud that it was done with so little resources (six constables rather than almost five hundred as shown in the movie), and without a single casualty among the police. I wonder now, what should I think about it all? Who are the real heroes and villains in independent India? Better people than me have found themselves at a loss, this much I know…