It was ironic. Really! I watched Paan Singh Tomar, the day one of India's greatest cricketers announced his retirement. Newspapers, TV Channels, FM radio, Social Networks were all buzzing with glorious tributes to the 'Wall'. The theater, was well, never mind!
Paan Singh Tomar, is a story of a simpleton who wears multiple hats as a farmer, soldier, sportsman, father and more infamously, as a Baaghi! Hailing from a small village from Morena, MP, Paan Singh (player by Irfan) joins the Rajputana Rifles because be believes "Is desh mai, Army ke alawa sab chor haigo". His potential to effortlessly run long distances is immediately noted by Major Masand when Paan is asked to run twenty rounds for reporting to duty a day late. The voracious young man soon learns in the army mess, that joining sports in the army gives the license of unlimited food, a luxury not all sepoys can enjoy. As the proof of the pudding, he manages to deliver a bar of ice cream within four minutes to Major Masand's house before it can melt. No sooner, he is drafted into the athletics team.
A reed thin Paan, shows his class by beating the entire set of trained athletes on the first day. Constrained by nepotism, his coach (played by an endearing Rajendra Singh) convinces Paan that he is better suited for running Steeple Chase than the 5000m. Thus begins the story of Paan the athlete, who keeps breaking records to win medals at state, national and even International meets. Tomar breaks the national steeplechase record in the 1958 National Games in Cuttack with a timing of nine minutes and 12.4 seconds and his own record in the 1964 Open Meet in Delhi with a timing of nine minutes and four seconds. Running gives him opportunity, friendships, identity, fame and yes, unlimited food.
Things, however are not so rosy back home. His idyllic family life is thrown out of gear by a bunch of greedy relatives who are hell bent of snatching his land. A rational and fair armyman, stands no chance against the atrocities of gun totting relatives, who make life a living hell for his family. Paan tries using his army background to reach out to officials and the panchayat for help, but they all lead to dead ends. The last straw comes as his son's brutal assault which leaves the young man half dead. But, half dead is not dead, according to the local police, who insult a enraged Paan Singh when he reach out for help. His trinket collection of photos, trophies and articles mean nothing more than scrap to the insouciant inspector. "Desh ka naam uncha kiya hai maine. Kyon bhaaga main itna?" screams out an angry Paan. "To medal mila na uske liye!".
Paan is now left with no other option to pick up the gun. And once you pull the trigger, there is no stopping is there? His life now turns into a unrelenting series of cat and mouse with dodging bullets, kidnappings and death. His band and fame soon spread across the borders of three states. The dusty ravines of Chambal become home, the gang, family and the rifle, the ticket to lawlessness and power. But every meteoric rise is followed by an inevitable gory end and downfall. Its just that Paan Singh takes it with the utmost dignity and panache.
The movie is the brainchild of director Tigmanshu Dhulia, who heard about PST when he was working in Chambal for Shekar Kapoor's Bandit Queen. He then took it upon himself to gather hard to find information about the national champion turned villain. He ensures that he portrays the times and characters with utmost authenticity, including locations, dialects and events. Kudos to the new wave of Indian directors, who are not afraid to risk telling different stories and making tough movies. The cinematography is beautiful, from capturing the lanky subedar conquering the race track in baggy shorts to reigning over the unforgiving hinterlands of Chambal. The sparse and rugged landscapes evoke strong memories of Bandit Queen and Omkara. Speaking of Omkara, one cannot miss the brilliant dialogues written by Tigmanshu doing full justice to the local dialects.Classics like " Beehad mein ‘Baaghi’ hote hain, ‘Dacait’ milte hain parliament mein!" and "beta daro mat… ye police ki vardi mein police hi hai!" will be long remembered in times to come.
At the end of the day, PST is all about Irrfan Khan. The most underrated actors of our times. He brings in an effortless authenticity and sincerity to one of the most difficult roles to pull off in the recent past. He's lovable as a ravenous athlete, believable as a humble farmer, charming as a playful husband, mature as a father and above all scintillating as runaway outlaw. The supporting cast also doles out strong performances. Mahie Gill as the subedar's wife, Brjendar Kala as the ultna nervous journalist taking interview, Zakir Husaain as Inspector Rathore are all very convincing.
Bandit movies have always been popular. From the blood thirsty outlaws in Seven Samurai, to the legendary Gabbar Singh, they have captured the imagination of viewers and taken them through wild journeys of terror, bravery and madness. PST although being in the same league, forces us to ask one important question. Do we really as a nation, take sportsmen other than cricketers seriously? The long list of Indian athletes shown at the end of the movie, who died penniless and without basic medical facilities is heart wrenching. Its a shame, that as a country we treat our sporting heroes as unwanted liabilities. Maybe that is why we are not producing great sportsmen anymore, maybe that is why India will never be a force to recon with in a 100m dash. Pity!