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Remembering Irrfan Khan Through Paan Singh Tomar

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Irrfan Khan had the kind of personality which would neatly fit in both the kinds of roles- rustic and rural or sophisticated and urban. Think of the film Talvar for the latter, and you will know what I am talking about. For the former, there is no better example than Paan Singh Tomar, released in 2012. 

Irrfan in Paan Singh Tomar. A still from the movie.

Irrfan Khan did Paan Singh Tomar when he was still a rising star – and did not yet enjoy the cult status he did when he succumbed to cancer in 2018.  In a lot of ways, this movie capitulated him to fame. It was a risk that paid off, given the unconventionality of the subject. But then, when did our Irrfan conform to the convention? 

Paan Singh Tomar is the story of India’s unsung athletes – as the closing credits make it clear. That itself would be a subject worthy of a movie – of India’s athletes battling all social and systemic odds and bringing glory to the nation, only to fade in oblivion afterwards. Tomar’s story is even more compelling because it is the story of a soldier turned athlete (for the want of more food), who turned into a dacoit (for the want of justice). 

As the famous story goes, Director Tigmanshu Dhulia first learned about Tomar while working on the set of Bandit Queen in Chambal. Intrigued that Tomar was largely forgotten despite holding several records, he resolved to make a film about his life. Dhulia researched the film’s background for two years, interviewing Tomar’s surviving family members and visiting his native village in Bhind. 

In the first hour of the film, you see a very young Irrfan Khan who had joined the Indian Army with a patriotic fervour typical to the lakhs of young men from our villages, ready to die for the nation if needed.

This sentiment does not really go away even after he turns into a dreaded dacoit years later, even after the custodians of the state chase him for being a criminal. In a lot of ways, his fight was against the system – the apathetic, corrupt system that yielded to the pressure of his land grabbing relatives and destroyed any semblance of a normal future that he and his family deserved. It was never against his country. 

When a journalist asks him what made him a dacoit, he replies in his usual Irrfan-ish brooding style, “Bheed mein baaghi hote hai, Dacait milte hai parliament mein.” (There are only rebels in the ravines. The dacoits you will find in the Parliament)

The dialogue is unforgettable, for both – the way it was delivered and the truth behind it in words. 

What fades (as the movie progresses) is the innocence, the naiveté of a village lad which characterized Tomar in his early days in the Indian Army. In the first half, we see a young Paan Singh wanting to enter sports only to get to eat more than the usual quota allotted to soldiers, and running a mile with an ice cream in his hand to prove his speed to a superior. We see him lose a match for his Guru when he asks him to, and run barefoot in a foreign land because he was not used to wearing sports shoes with spikes.

We see him take his sports as seriously as a war to be waged – and shining in the glory of the victory – however brief it was. We see his shy, a blossoming romance with his wife, him teasing her with a photo of a Japanese girl – his fan – and cuddling her later on the single khat

Your heart almost breaks at the transformation that takes place in him in the latter half of the movie. 

Irrfan in Paan Singh Tomar. A still from the movie.

Paan Singh Tomar’s journey is thus the exploits of a man who could have and deserved to be someone very different, had it not been for the social and political systems that uprooted his aspirations. The film does not attempt any deliberate social commentary on the state of affairs in the valley of Chambal – it is for the audience to see and reflect for themselves, as to what could have compelled young men to join the plundering gangs and live off the rest of their lives hiding in the mountains when they were but sons of peasants.

In a lot of ways, the movie also shatters the idea of dacoits our Bollywood movies created in our minds. None of them is on horseback, for one. They employ an ingeniously designed process to kidnap and demand a ransom, where they disguise themselves as police (the lines between the looters and the protectors of law has already been blurred there – so why not?). As far as the film goes- and the little research that I did later – these dacoit gangs did not really loot and plunder the poor in their villages. 

The looters were the landlords – and perhaps the rapists too. 

In one of the earlier scenes of the film, Pan Singh Tomar berates his Guru for giving a gaali (a cuss word on mother/sister). “I respect my mother and sister a lot,” he says – even when the Guru explains that he is just used to hurling these abuses without meaning to hurt. Even in the latter part of the film, Paan Singh does not become the kind of man who would be violent towards women as means of control and coercion. I don’t know if it was true with all the dacoits of Chambal but I want to believe it for Paan Singh Tomar and his gang of youth – rebels because they had no choice. 

One of the other things that I loved about the film is that in spite of being based on such a topic, it is not overtly violent. Scenes where throats are cut and blood is splattered are absent. The idea was to impress our minds about the inevitability of young men resorting to violence because they had nowhere to turn to, not to glorify this phenomenon. 

Paan Singh Tomar never surrendered to the police, even after everyone – his mentors and his wife and children wanted him to. There was a stubbornness that lied in there – the same which helped to run and finish a race even on bare feet and bag medals for the nation. Needless to say, he was hunted and killed by the police when things got out of hands. As an audience, we know that his encounter was not unjust – as he truly had blood on his hands by that time, and arresting him was impossible. Yet, we all grieve for him when he dies. 

Much of what Paan Singh Tomar went through in his lifetime is expressed through the smouldering dark of eyes of Irrfan Khan – there is innocence, betrayal, anguish, anger and pain periodically. The raw Hindi used in the valleys of Chambal, which Irrfan drawl on casually ( as if he was born with it as his mother tongue) sounds sweet to the ear. This is surprising given the contrast of the rather tough character of those who speak it.  

The film went on to win many accolades for both the actors and the director, including the National Award for best movie and best actor. Much deservingly so. It is the kind of movie that you watch at film festivals and come out with the satisfaction of watching something real and meaningful.

I watched it only for Irrfan Khan though.

When Paan Singh Tomar died in the film, it reminded me painfully of Irrfan’s death in real life. Like Paan Singh, his career was cut short brutally too. But unlike Paan Singh, Irrfan Khan will not be forgotten. He will live on, in our hearts and in our minds. 

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