"Sarkaar pe vishwaas hai?", "Nahi...Isilye toh Army join ki hai; Sab log corrupt hai sivai Army ke..." ("Do you believe in the government?" "No, and that is why I have joined Army. Everyone is corrupt except the army"), that is the belief with which Paan Singh Tomar joined Army. He served the country, became a national champion through his athletics but came to be known for something else entirely. Paan Singh Tomar, a biopic on this athlete-turned-dacoit, directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, is one of the neatest biopic till date yet it lacks the fear, the terror that this man created in the Chambal area.
The story of an unsung hero... A man who was turned towards crime out of need, because circumstances forced him to do so... Sounds compelling, right? And it is for a while but soon you realise that even though his story is sad, it is barely impactful.
Paan Singh Tomar (Irrfan Khan), a simple, down-to-earth and an honest young man, joins army. He knows he can run fast, he knows he can shoot targets with such an ease that he doesn't even require some special training for it but in spite of him being aware of all these things, he is absolutely grounded and doesn't show even a hint of pride. He serves in the army in the Athlete section from where he goes on to become a National Champion...a Hero. A man who has jumped hurdles all his life to win medals, has to jump many more simply to keep his family happy. Hoping to retire happily to family life, he comes back to his village. But destiny has different plans for him and he is forced to take up a gun in his hands. Now he is narrating the entire story to a journalist hoping to make people aware that becoming a "bhaagi" (dacoit, or in his language a "rebel") was not his choice.
Irrfan Khan makes a very promising and convincing Paan Singh Tomar. Without even the slightest hint of any stardom, he gets completely involved in Tomar's character. Mahie Gill as his wife has a very little role but she has done complete justice to it. Nowhere has Tigmanshu Dhulia's casting gone wrong and neither is anyone under-utilised nor is anyone over-utilised. Everyone gets their act perfect, including the supporting cast i.e. his gang.
The acting makes everything feel believable. The dialect can prove a bit jarring for people to understand, but in the director's defence; it is a very honest way of bringing the real feel of the film without any modification or manipulations (and of course, there are subtitles as well). Even the look of the film, the picturisation, the camera movements and the grainy-effect of the film gives it a truly village-like feel. But what doesn't feel real is the pain, the suffering and the so-called humiliation faced by Paan Singh Tomar. His misery doesn't come out with any force and although in our minds the reasons for his taking up a gun seem to be valid, on the screen they appear almost bland. Even the fact that his old mother is hit doesn't seem to bother him as much as he initially claims ("Mujhe kabhibhi meri Maa ke naam se gaali matt dena, mujhe meri Maa bahut pyaari hai...") and that feels so unreal. His initial revenge act seems to be reasonable but his later kidnappings, his training lessons to his gang etc... comes out as comical rather than something very serious.
In a way, one might say it is good that the film isn't melodramatic, but there isn't enough drama either that can keep you hooked on to it.
Director Tigmanshu Dhulia does a good thing of reminding us of the sorry state in which the Indian Sportsmen are, through the messages towards the end. Definitely, the film is not a painful experience. It is no doubt bearable and worth watching for the brilliant performances and the rest of the things which I mentioned earlier, but it won't prove to be a very enriching experience either.