Some films are meant to run that extra mile to go beyond being a mere cinematic experience. As we see names of real-life athletes who died unsung flash across the screen at the end of Paan Singh Tomar we realize what we've just witnessed in the past 190 minutes of taut playing-time is not just film. It's a treatise on what destiny has in store for people who do not conform to socially-acceptable definitions of success.
Indeed Irrfan Khan as Paan Singh Tomar typifies that criminal neglect of all athletes in our country barring cricketers who, as we all know by now, are grossly overrated sportsperson.
Tomar was a steeplechase runner. Not that it made any difference to his destiny. In the army for the long innings Tomar, we are told, took voluntary retirement to look after his family and land in his native village.
This is where Dhulia's riveting screenplay, where not a moment is squandered in self-indulgent editing, gets truly astounding. Abandoning the manageable hurdles of the steeplechase Tomar took to the gun to avenge the wrong done to his family.
There are hurdles, and hurdles. And some impossible to overcome.
The two lives of Paan Singh Tomar, in the army as a celebrated sportsperson and as an outlaw on the run in the Chambal valley (not on a horse, please!) are brought together in a stirring unexpectedly involving blend of the brilliant and the haunting.
While Dhulia's earlier works suffered for the lack of a suitable budget Paan Singh Tomar is technically a polished piece of cinema with the editing(Aarti Bajaj) and background score(Sandeep Chowta) adding a dimension beyond the drama of the driven athlete.
The film is shot by cinematographer Aseem Mishra with an intriguing blend of a bleeding authenticity and a poetic resplendence. Indeed, Tigmanshu Dhulia's training as a raconteur of a tale of social injustice and damnifying outlawry, harks back to the director's association with Shekhar Kapoor's Bandit Queen.
In portraying Paan Singh's leap from celebrated athlete to wanted bandit, Dhulia avoids the ostentatious brutality of the circumstances that made Phoolan Devi a social outcast. Paan Singh Tomar has very little on-screen violence. It's the heart that bleeds profusely and invisibly in almost every frame.
The unspoken question, why do we treat our athletes so shabbily, trails the narrative, as do the other larger question of social inequality and the subversion of law.
Unlike other films with a strong social message Paan Singh Tomar never stops being a truly liberating cinematic experience. Of course much of the credit for the film's sledgehammer effect goes to Irrfan Khan's central performance. As Paan Singh, Irrfan is in one word, flawless. There is not a single shot in the film that he gets wrong. He follows his character's destiny with an intuitive alertness that leaves no room for ambiguity in the interpretation of the character's complex life. And it's not just about getting the character's spoken language and body language right. Irrfan goes way beyond.
Would the other grossly overrated Khans of our cinema kindly watch Irrfan's performance?
The dialogues range from the riveting to the refreshing. Comments on subordination and oppression are often laced in laughter. God knows we need a sense of humour to survive the progressive rampancy of socio-political injustice.
Dhulia carpets the engrossing film with episodes that bring us close to tears. In a scene like the one where his army guru(Vipin Sharma) gifts Paan Singh a carton of ice-cream Irrfan sheds real tearsâ€¦We don't need the actor to tell us that. We know.
The beauty of watching Irrfan transform into Tomar is the seamless leap the actor takes into the character. Irrfan is blessed with first-rate supporting actors, many of whom we haven't seen much on screen before. They add to the film's high level of authenticity by just not looking like and speaking their lines like actors.
The scenes showing Irrfan running with other actors are beautifully captured as moments of metaphorical significance. Somewhere down the line the scenes showing Tomar jumping over hurdles on the race track merge into the larger picture to tell us, life on field and life outside the race track have one thing in common. You have to keep running, no matter what the odds.
Having said what the poetry of Paan Singh Tomar so exquisitely tells us, we must not let the film's sheer entertainment value go by unnoticed. More than the sum-total of its infinite resonances on the quality of life lived in an intrinsically unjust social order, Paan Singh Tomar is a terrific edge-of-the-seat entertainer. The synthesis of two genres-the sports film and the dacoit drama-is done with such confident ingenuity that we hardly realize when one ends, the other begins.
"No one gave a damn about me when I won medals for the country. Today when I'm a baaghi (rebel) everyone wants to know about Paan Singh Tomar," Irrrfan says caustically.
Hopefully after this film we'd learn to care for our unsung heroes a bit more.
Oh yes, a word on the stunning soundtrack. From snatches of old Lata Mangeshkar melodies to radio announcements on Nargis Dutt's demise, time passages are achieved through incidental snatches of voices caught in mid-air.
Life's like that. You never know what you will experience in that raga we call existence until a snatch of a line hits you from a distance.
If only Paan Singh had been accorded the respect he deserved he wouldn't have ended dead in a canal. But then we would not get to watch this remarkable film either.
Think about it.