Paan Singh Tomar lived a fascinating life. A gifted athlete betrayed by his government, his story went largely unnoticed until thirty years after his death. But the movie made about him doesn’t quite do him justice.
The film opens in 1980 with a sort of framing device: a reporter seeks an interview with the legendary dacoit (“bandit”) Paan Singh Tomar. I say it’s only sort of a framing device because the action of the last thirty minutes of the film all takes place after the interview.
Paan Singh (as he’s referred to) explains that he’s not a bandit, but a rebel. He narrates his story to the reporter, starting in 1950 as a young army officer. Paan Singh (Irrfan Khan) angles for a spot on the national track and field team — an offshoot of the army — because the athletes get larger portions of food at mealtime than soldiers do.
Since TVs weren’t common household items at the time, Paan Singh’s athletic achievements go largely unnoticed outside the big cities. His wife doesn’t learn that he’s set a new record in the steeplechase until he tells her himself on one of his brief trips home to his small town.
Paan Singh leaves the army when a cousin, Bhanwar Singh (Jahangir Khan), attempts to seize all of the local farmland for himself. Paan Singh is offered the chance to move his family to safety and coach the national track and field team, but he elects to fight for his farm. He asks the local police for help, citing his service to the country in the army and in competitive athletics. The police have never heard of Paan Singh Tomar, but they know Bhanwar well, thanks to the generous bribes he pays them.
Unable to stop his cousin peacefully, Paan Singh and the other displaced farmers wage a guerrilla war against Bhanwar.
The events of Paan Singh Tomar’s life are certainly exciting enough to inspire a feature film. The problem is in the way the plot unfolds. It’s as though writer-director Tigmanshu Dhulia is ticking off boxes on a biographical checklist, rather than telling a story. Scenes are too brief, ending abruptly before moving on to the next too-brief scene.
In an effort to hit all of the biographical highlights, character development is minimized. Paan Singh’s wife, Indra (Mahie Gill), has little to do apart from submit to her husband’s groping on his brief visits home. I’d have thought she’d have a lot to say about his choice to spend his military career away from her and their children, only to spend the rest of his life running from the law. We never hear her side of the story.
There’s little time allowed to explore the motivations of the characters, and that includes those of Paan Singh himself. The nobility of his choice to fight for his family farm is tempered somewhat by the means by which he finances his guerrilla war. He and his gang kidnap people and use the ransom to buy weapons. But, even after the situation with Bhanwar is resolved, the kidnappings continue. Why?
Was retaking his farmland for his family Paan Singh’s real goal? Was it simply revenge? Is he really a rebel or just a vigilante?
Even with his lack of character development, Khan gives a gripping performance as Paan Singh. As the movie progresses, it’s easy to get caught up in Khan’s charisma. It’s only after the movie ends that the questions of “Why?” come to the forefront. Paan Singh Tomar doesn’t offer enough answers.