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Monday, August 27, 2012

Paan Singh Tomar

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…


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Ah, not many readers are interested in cinema, I guess, unless it is in the Die hard or Ek tha Tiger mould!

Sayan Datta said...

Dear Suvro Sir,

I haven't watched 'Paan Singh Tomar' but, after reading your view of it, I plan to pounce on the next available opportunity. I admire Irrfan Khan's acting prowess too, having seen him first in 'Darr' and I have followed his career, though intermittently, since. I watched him in 'Ek doctor ki maut' where he was very young and probably just starting out on an acting career and most recently in movies such as 'The namesake' , 'A mighty heart’ and 'Life in a metro'. All I can say is that he is exactly what an actor should be. He delves into the role and brings out all the dimensions of the character he portrays.

I wonder why there aren't more actors like him in our country. Well, there are a few and there are also those who can really 'act' if they want to, but somehow haven't done more than a few meaningful films. For example, I really enjoyed both the movie and Saif Ali Khan's role in 'Eklavya', after which I never saw him in a good film once! Then there is Mithun Chakraborty who has played some wonderful and unforgettable characters in films like 'Tahader kotha', 'Mrigaya' and more recently in 'Titli'. But my complain is why don't these actors make good films more often?

On the larger, more pertinent social question, I wonder what degree of ill-treatment and neglect can turn a man from a sportsperson to a rebel, and what kind of a country is that which treats not only its sportspersons but also (quite often) its writers and scientists and thinkers in this manner. It’s a matter of extreme sadness and shame that this happens all the time. What extraordinary inconsideration and scorn turned Paan Singh into such a cynic at odds with society, I really can’t imagine! After reading your review I don’t think of Paan Singh Tomar neither as a hero or a villain, but simply a man who did what he had to. If my family was threatened in any way and I had exhausted all other options, I don’t think I would act any differently!

Sayan Datta

Sayan Datta said...

Extremely sorry for the typo. I didn't revise before sending my comment. The second last line will be - "I don’t think of Paan Singh Tomar either as a hero or a villain, but simply a man who did what he had to do." Please also excuse the misplaced commas in the first paragraph.

Sayan Datta

Abhirup said...

Dear Sir,

Many thanks for this blogpost. I am glad you watched and liked this film; in my opinion, it is the best that Bollywood has produced thus far this year. You have already pointed out the important issues the film highlights, so I won’t go into that. Instead, allow me to comment upon a few aspects of the film that I found impressive.

(i) It is very well-paced, capturing the entire trajectory of a man’s life within a running time of two hours or so, and not allowing the story to drag at any point. This is much easier said than done: to compress years, even decades, into minutes and hours requires a thorough understanding of the principles of storytelling. One has to convey the passing of time without letting too much time pass, and the dramatically interesting portions have to be highlighted while also allowing the quieter, more low-key moments to register. And I think Tigmanshu Dhulia, the director, has achieved this remarkably well. I appreciated how he divided the film into two clear halves, one showing Paan Singh Tomar’s life before he became a dacoit (as well as the factors that compel him to become one), and the other showing his life after he chooses to add his name to the list of ‘baaghis’ in Chambal. Not only does this give us a distinct, chronological understanding of his life, it also helps accentuate the tragedy of a fundamentally decent man being forced to resort to crime to save his family and salvage for himself the respect that the world refused to show him until he demanded it at gunpoint. And while Dhulia has used the drama of Paan Singh’s life as an athlete and as an outlaw to optimum effect, he has also allowed the man behind the legend to shine through, especially in the scenes with Paan Singh and his wife, as well as in his interactions with the members of his gang. These are the quieter moments that I spoke of, the ones that help in fleshing out the protagonist’s character. The moving back-and-forth in time—Paan Singh being interviewed in the present, and him retelling the events of the past—is also skillfully done. To sum up, every minute of the screen time has been used to convey something, either about the character of Paan Singh, or about the milieu that made him who he was. That’s some masterful filmmaking at work.

Abhirup said...

(ii) I also liked how the director has incorporated many moments of humour in the narrative. Given that this is a rather sad story, most directors would maintain a somber tone from the beginning till the end, but Dhulia knows better. My favourite moments of humour include the one where Paan Singh teases his wife by talking about the Japanese girl who said she loves him, his pulling the leg of an elderly member of his gang (the one he calls “chacha”), his constant jibes at the obesity of the reporter who is interviewing him, and him replying to his superiors in the army, who ask him if he respects the government, “Nahin saab, sarkar toh saali chor hain.” I really burst out laughing when I heard this line, and I responded not so much to the content of the line as to the way it was delivered—with droll, hilarious nonchalance.

(iii) The use of music in the film—spare and occasional—is a refreshing change, given that most of our films find it mandatory to include multiple songs (never mind that they often bring the narrative to a crashing halt), most of them featuring women in various stages of undress. In contrast, here, we don’t find any songs except some folk lyrics that are a part of the background score, and the background score itself is fairly subdued, even during the dramatic high points. Kudos to the composer, Abhishek Ray, for understanding exactly what kind of music this film requires, and composing the soundtrack accordingly.
(iv) I was really moved when Paan Singh tells the journalist why he killed a group of men who had informed the police about the whereabouts of his gang, which resulted in his “chacha” being shot dead. “Nihatye the, lekin nirdosh nahin”, he says about the informers; that those men he killed were unarmed, but not guiltless. There is a yearning in his voice, a desperation, to make the journalist understand the reasons behind his actions, so that the readers can know about Paan Singh’s point-of-view and his side of the story before they demonize him as a ruthless, cold-blooded killer. It is to Dhulia’s credit, and also, of course, Irrfan Khan’s, that we indeed see where Paan Singh comes from and even empathize with him, despite the fact that he has taken lives.

Abhirup said...

As for the interview of the police officer (the link to which you have provided), I can’t help but feel that this man is an utterly callous, insensitive human being, precisely the kind of cop that forced Paan Singh to become a criminal. The fact that he refuses to view Paan Singh as anything more than one of the many criminals he has gunned down says more about him than it does about the dacoit; if he had bothered to watch the film (which, by his own admission, he hasn’t and doesn’t plan to), or if he had decided to try and know a little about Paan Singh’s background, he might have thought and spoken differently. Alas, closed minds cannot be reasoned with. And when I condemn this cop, I am not, as a corollary, defending dacoits: I am speaking specifically about one individual who was compelled to become one through little fault of his own. Of course crime should be condemned, but what, I wonder, would I have done if I were in his shoes? What would any of us have done? These questions need to be answered, or at least pondered upon, before we get judgmental.

And finally, I must speak about the miracle that is Irrfan Khan. From a Shakespearean tragic hero in ‘Maqbool’ to a street-side vendor in ‘Mumbai Meri Jaan’, from the comical do-gooder in ‘Life in a Metro’ to the villainous young man in ‘Haasil’, from the gentle NRI father in ‘The Namesake’ to a crafty yet good-natured criminal in ‘Yeh Saali Zindagi’, he has been outstanding in pretty much everything he has done. And as Sir has pointed out, he has managed to make a place for himself in the film industry despite not having a brawny body or chocolate boy facial features. But then, most great actors down the ages also had neither of those attributes. Some of the greatest star-actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney and Ernest Borgnine, didn’t have looks worth drooling over. Think also of the living legends: Tom Hanks, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, dustin hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe, Christopher Walken…none of them are particularly handsome. Closer home, it is the same story—Amitabh Bachchan, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Utpal Dutt, Girish Karnad, Mohanlal, Sanjeev Kumar…I could go on naming great actors who made it without good looks (and in many cases, even without having relatives in the film industry). Actors like Irrfan, Manoj Bajpai, Nawazuddin Siddique and Boman Irani are continuing with that tradition. More power to their elbow.

Yours sincerely,

Abhirup Mascharak.

Nishant said...

Dear Sir,

Of late, I have been watching some Hindi movies (not Bollywood though) and I watched Paan Singh Tomar today. I remembered your post and had to get back.

As both you and Abhirup wrote at length about, Irrfan's acting has been impeccable, as usual. I was reminded of Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and The Terminal when he speaks his mind so candidly. He did make me empathize with the character specially when he mentions every so often that people in the country and the reporter himself knew nothing about him when he won medals for the country but know him now that he's become a rebel.

I read the article in which Chauhan gives his interview. Maybe he's defensive since he was responsible for the death of the person that the film portrays as a hero. He might have got an order from his superiors to do a job and perhaps that's what he did. He has to justify whatever he did (at least to himself, as does Paan Singh). While I completely believe that the police in reality are just as bad or worse than portrayed in the movie, I wouldn't give too much thought to what Chauhan said. I was angered at Arjun Singh's tears (in the article). There aren't any tears when the politicians and the police don't do their jobs and in fact do quite the contrary and when people like Paan Singh take things into their own hands, then they start crying.

Naming the athletes who won medals for India and died in abject poverty was a very nice gesture and a rude awakening to us, but then our memories are really short. I am glad that Timangshu Dhulia made this movie since I had no knowledge of Paan Singh before reading the blog. Timangshu is also a very good actor as seen in his role as Ramadheer Singh in Gangs of Wasseypur, a movie which I loved though I am not sure you would like it as much. But I try to make sure that I watch movies which have some association with people like Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Anurag Kashyap, Kalki Kochlin, Vishal Bharadwaj, to name a few.