Cast: Irrfan, Mahie Gill, Zakir Hussain, Vipin Sharma
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Runtime: 135 min.
Verdict: It’s like McChicken Burger Combo (fries and Coke). Super tasty and mostly without nutrition.
Genre: Drama, Crime, Action
Mr. Dhulia’s film is a little too eager, the frames a little too resolved. There’s precious little by way of moral tension here, and the events arrive with the inner equations already settled. One might not be entirely mistaken in thinking of it more as a package and less the life of an unsung hero. The army is almost untouchable, considering they defend us and stuff, and one cannot even begin to imagine a film where the army is the one against whom the fingers have been pointed. Hey, in Mr. Dhulia’s defense he does wink a little in its general direction, but that is the extent of it. Still, I respect the effort. The cops, and hence the rest of the establishment have to bear the brunt of Mr. Dhulia’s allegations, and in the light of the recent events down-under, even the BCCI might not have been left out. The cops here come in two varieties – (a) overweight and corrupt, and (b) overweight and gratuitous dacoit-hunter. Exhibit (a) is irredeemable and worthless, and I’ve come across such depictions so many times I am numb. So yeah, I don’t necessarily mind them. But exhibit (b)? Now, that gets to me. And it fits Ms. Arundhati Roy’s description of our government. Often they are one and the same thing.
Rathore (Mr. Hussain) is their representative, introduced to us via a point-blank range bham-bham. You know, like bad-ass. The thing with him, and with this bunch for that matter, is that they hunt in battalions. I do not want to second guess Mr. Dhulia’s intentions here, the arm of the law comes across as some sort of bully, effective only when working in significant numbers, and even then hardly a match to the pure awesomeness of the rebel’s resourcefulness. And individuality, of course. I mean, a classic David and Goliath situation. It’s natural I am reminded of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, a film that doesn’t pursue the self-righteousness that Mr. Dhulia’s film so aggressively does, and a film where the law respects the domesticity of the common man. Sure, Paan Singh (Mr. Irrfan) does approach a couple of folks, a collector and an inspector, and the lack of eagerness on their part betrays the film’s lack of interest in trying to give the authority a chance, and for the most part these sequences come across as pre-packaged. These scenes, couple of them, or maybe even three, with a cop, with an army-man, and with a collector involve little by way of development and more by way of obligation. I might be painfully naïve out here but not a single lawman here expresses any sort of respect, and one feels, or at least I felt, Mr. Dhulia was a little too eager to get to the spicy rebel part. Now, that might not necessarily be a turn-off for you, dear reader, but then if one of your film’s opening line takes the corruption of the parliament for a fact and then proceeds to show how the authority has failed a citizen, I don’t know how much I ought to gain by way of insight or observation or a political statement. So yeah, Paan Singh Tomar comes with all its equations preprocessed, and all we’re supposed to do is applaud as the system gets pwned.
Which is fine. There’re some terrific dialogs here, some of the best I can recollect, and the dialect runs so deep we had English subtitles for assistance. The races are fun enough, and Mr. Dhulia’s insistence to pick up a ruler and a compass and draw parallels in real life are not. In fact, the film’s central structure of a flashback (past) derived out of Paan Singh’s dictation of his life-story, where he’s completely in command of the themes that govern his life, bring another level of dilution, so that all we’re left with is preprocessed and even pre-chewed food. It’s just completely passive, and I wouldn’t necessarily complain considering that Mr. Irrfan at work is one of the great pleasures of movie-watching. But then, yeah, it’s a whole lot of one-way traffic. Too much of us versus them. Paan Singh and his men kill 9 villagers and the events are stacked to highlight the betrayal. The villagers aren’t supporting the law, and are only choosing a side for personal gains – a job for a tip. Which is sort of depressing, in a way. Utter selfishness and crookedness (generally a reflection of physical fitness) and absolute lack of principal surrounding our man. He’s left alone at the end, as he was always in his life – in the field, in the army, in his village – and this moral preciousness is a little hard to swallow. Art (and sport) has a way of being obsessed with the past, and commerce has a way of always being in the present. One could argue the late Paan Singh didn’t do what is necessary to be heralded the country’s hero, no? You win a gold medal, and you win spelling bee, and you win a science contest. And then you win the Cricket World Cup. If all of these achievements were one and the same, well, I don’t know, I would’ve lost count of heroes to follow. I mean, can one really be a hero, or define a heroic act (art), without selling it as one (commerce)? Isn’t that balance, and isn’t it the case that Paan Singh probably wasn’t a hero until Mr. Dhulia’s film made him one. Which is how it ought to be, if you were to ask me. The hero is on the screen. And to gripe about either – art or commerce, past or present – and especially the latter is probably guilty of seeking self-satisfaction. You know, feeling good about it. Which Paan Singh Tomar is. It’s heartfelt, but with design. An old lady gets to feel the weight of rifle-butt. Completely hardcore world out there. A world where the one human touch is provided by an Army officer to Paan Singh in the form of an ice-cream. And I would be lying to you if I were to say that ice-cream doesn’t taste a little bitter.