Movie Review: Paan Singh Tomar (2010)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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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.


10 thoughts on “Movie Review: Paan Singh Tomar (2010)

  1. TS

    this movie raises a question that what could possibly drive a patriotic soldier into crossing over to the dark side? i think because of anger n frustration against the government cos he was an athelete. n in india except cricketers others atheletes and sports are totally neglected. They r not paid well n govt. doesnt really care about our athletes once their careers are over. But with cricketers they r very rich. Recent forbes list shows Dhoni Indian cricket team captain is the richest cricketer and ” Interestingly, Dhoni earns more in endorsements than the world’s most popular footballer Lionel Messi”. Sachin used to be the richest earlier. so obvioulsy other sportsman feel bad.

  2. Vineet

    Hi Kathy,
    I can understand it might be difficult for you to grasp the rural culture in India of the 1950’s-1990’s (before economic liberalisation in 1991). Actually all questions you raised were indeed answered in the movie (in a way that they are quite obvious if you know the context)

    This is quite difficult to explain in a few words but I’ll try my best.

    Firstly India is an extremely diverse country. Language, religion, ethnicity you name it. Just an example is that there are about 1600+ recognized mother tongues in India! Hindi is most common, spoken by more than 60% of the country. (link: Now so much diversity leads to a very rigid community based culture in India. That is family>community>country (a very generalised statement but i think you know what I mean)

    Secondly India gained independence in 1947. before independence there was a federal government in India entirely controlled by the British empire with token Indian representation (with no real powers). For farmers all over India this only meant death and taxes. Agriculture used to (and unfortunately it still does to some extent) depend entirely on vagaries of monsoons. This meant a serious draught and famine every decade. (In 1942 Bengal famine aprox 2-5 million died of starvation!)
    After Independence, tax burden did come down and there has been no famine or draught since but situation of farmers has not improved.
    (current situation:

    So farmers always have had a very serious (and genuine) contempt for administration.

    Please note that government and country is different. Army defends the country, and country is the mother (mother India just like its mother Russia for Russians). So Army is prestigious and serving the country is an honour. (on top of that army always has had a reputation of being untainted or non corrupt in India)
    On the other hand, government is generally considered corrupt. And being a rebel against corrupt government was actually respected in many areas in India in that time period. Worst was Chambal Valley where the movie is based.

    So Paan Singh was a farmer, who joined army but later turned a rebel. As a rebel, he had his own set of morals that he followed. He kidnapped anyone who he thought was rich and corrupt to support his community/family. Communities closer to ruling government were legitimate targets in his eyes. He was a patriot but also anti establishment. But once a rebel, one cant quit. Any dacoit who has ever done so has been killed by enemies he made in past. So Paan Singh’s aim after he kills Bhanwar was simply to survive. To surrender was to be disgraced by one’s own community, to kneel before a corrupt government and die a disgraced death by the hands of one’s enemies.

    This movie does justice to the story in a way that it shows things as they were. They have shown Paan Singh as he was, flawed, dark but admirable and bright at the same time. Above all its a story of mistreatment of star athletes in India and Paan Singh’s story is one of the most tragic.

    So I think character development for Paan Singh atleast was complete. They needed just a few scenes for it because we know what the mentality was back then of the rebels. But he was one of those rebels who were the result of collective failure of the system and not a product of greed and power hunger,

    Over all I found this movie quite close to reality as I know was back then.

    This has been a very very long reply but I hope this helps.


    1. Kathy

      Thanks for such a thorough explanation, Vineet! This comment gives great background information for anyone in the U.S. considering watching “Paan Singh Tomar” on Netflix. You answered many of the questions I had about the movie, particularly regarding the way Paan Singh funded his gang.

      I wish that the story had been told in a way that made it more accessible for an international audience. I know that it’s not necessary since the primary audience for “Paan Singh Tomar” is in India, but Paan Singh’s life story is compelling enough to appeal to people around the world. If nothing else, I hope that Tigmanshu Dhulia will inspire other filmmakers to delve into the stories of India’s other mistreated athletes for plot ideas.

    2. Mohit Garg

      Vineet great job. You have done true justice to Legendary Paan SIngh Tomar.

      Also I would like to point out to Cathy, that towards the end of the movie it was said by him to his coach, “My surrender will mean that I have made a mistake … ” which in my opinion is a notification of the intent and the questions raised by Cathy. After his return from the Army, when the Collector comes in he shows no interest what so ever to resolve the feud, which he could have easily done and also the statement of his are quite dubious. Furthermore the response from the police is quite teeth-biting and is a very common scenario.

      People like Paan Singh Tomar, are the ones who have stood for us at the borders and saved us from the wars risking their lives. The courage is fueled by the self respect and utter regard for the motherland and that is the ultimate weapon.

      Movies does the justification to Paan Singh Tomar, by conveying, even though he did not had much schooling but he was a thinker, evidence is the reply he gives in front of the superiors, by differentiating his judgement from orders based on who gives them.

      This movie has been truly great and Irrfan has again justified by immersing into the character completely. Both Paan SIngh and Irrfan … ABSOLUTE Geniuses.

      Mohit Garg

    3. Ashwini Kumar Janu

      well, agreed with you at every point except one, about the surrender. He didn’t surrender not because he was not willing to kneel to government, but as he said to his coach,”to ka karen? surrender kar den ? aur bol den ki jo bhi humne kiya galat kiya.” he didn’t want to accept that he did something wrong.

      1. Kathy

        Thanks for your perspective, Ashwini. I suspect that a lot of meaning and subtlety in the dialog was lost in the translation from Hindi to English. Paan Singh Tomar is probably best suited for viewers who don’t need to rely on English subtitles.

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