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Times of India
The real-life story of subedar Paan Singh Tomar, a seven-time national champion athlete and Army jawan who became a dacoit
Sportsmen and outlaws inhabit two different universes. One shines amidst the bright lights of glory, the other haunts the ravines of notoriety. But in director Tigmanshu Dhulia's biopic, Paan Singh Tomar, the two worlds collide. And the result is a rather exquisite blend of drama, humour and tragedy; altogether eminently enjoyable good cinema.
Beginning 1958, Tomar was a seven-time national champion in steeplechase, a grueling athletic event where participants jump over seven water hazards and 28 hurdles while running a distance of 3,000 metres. Born in the dacoit-infested district of Morena, Tomar was an Army jawan too. He didn't run for pleasure; only for better food that athletes were entitled to. How a simple jawan becomes a feared outlaw is the kernel of the film's story.
Dhulia, who worked with Shekhar Kapur in the seminal Bandit Queen, enters the crevices of the badlands of Chambal river and makes you understand how bandits are born. But he also brings out the camaraderie of the jawans and the gentle humour of a unit are rather well brought out. The beauty of the movie is that it blends the personal with the larger social truths. Tomar may have been running in Tokyo but back home in his village, his family must suffer the same oppression and humiliation as others.
The movie shows how Tomar himself is part of the feudal mindset in his own way. He prides in the fact that his uncles are outlaws and he tells his coach not to abuse him. For him, that is unacceptable. The movie illustrates the linkages between land and dacoits - how every affront becomes part of a memory and how every murder becomes a link to another, a never-ending chain.
The movie works because Irffan makes Paan Singh Tomar come alive as an athlete, as a husband and as a dacoit. This is a flawless performance from a consummate actor. As his wife, Gill comes up with a rare restrained performance. There is humour as well a delicate intensity in the romantic scenes between the two. Dhulia gets great work from the remainder of the cast. The camerawork, especially of the ravines and the river, is excellent.
In a country obsessed with overpaid cricketers, a biopic on a former national champion athlete is reason enough to celebrate. But Dhulia's film is much more. It is one of superbly crafted film that underlines the linkage of life, sports and society.
It is perhaps a sign of Bollywood maturing that another biopic on a famous athlete is in the making: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, on sprinter Milkha Singh. Till then, let us just relish the pleasure of watching Paan Singh Tomar.