Saturday, March 03, 2012

Paan Singh Tomar: My take on the matter

At the outset, this is not a review. I don’t believe I have the credentials to review a movie. What I can do well within my rights, however, is to tell you what I thought of Paan Singh Tomar. And that’s just what I’m about to do.

Note: This post may be full of what you think are spoilers and what I think is common sense . Hence, (t)read carefully.

After quite some time, yours truly toddled off to the movies to catch Paan Singh Tomar. I didn't know much about the movie except the basic premise and the fact that it had Irrfan Khan in it. Of course I was sold. I was even excited, to be honest.

So, the positives. I’ll tell you what worked for me about the movie. Three things:

1)      Irrfan Khan
2)      Irrfan Khan
3)      Irrfan Khan

If it wasn’t for this brilliant actor and the almost perfect casting, I don’t think we’d have a movie half as decent. It began well. My interest was piqued enough. Irrfan Khan captivated me the moment he set foot into the screen. The amazing presence that man commands is enough for me to keep watching the screen till the end of time. He could be reciting the English alphabet backwards for six hours, for all I care.

First off, Paan Singh Tomar means well. The first half grips you, with Singh’s journey from army person to athlete being completely convincing (but of course, it’s a true story). What touches you the most, perhaps, is the protagonist’s innocence and the beautiful, effortless way Khan portrays the whole ‘Will run for food’ bit. you completely get why he becomes an athlete and you love him. All’s well in paradise till Tomar’s horrible cousin creates property troubles. And up to this point, you’re into every bit of the movie..

Just about here, the screenplay disappoints. You realize that the character development in the first half is good enough just for the first half. It does not flawlessly render into, and explain, the Tomar you see in the second half.

In all fairness, director Tigmanshu Dhulia has tried convincing you of the circumstances in which Tomar turns dacoit. Yes, our man tries to solve his property feuds legally, with the help of the village panchayat and the cops. His son is mercilessly beaten up and no one heeds his desperate pleas for justice. All his efforts fall flat. He tries telling them he’s been an athlete of international stature and should be paid attention to, if nothing else. No one cares a tiny bit.

And then, before you have time to digest all this information and even feel sorry at the man’s helplessness, you see he’s already formed the ‘Paan Singh Tomar Gang’ of 'rebels'. Huh? What did I miss?

What follows is a typical gang war / revenge saga. Somewhere, Dhulia doesn’t want you to forget that Tomar is essentially a good person whose circumstances are to blame for what he has become. Dhulia even keeps  rubbing this point in. But then, he also realises that he can’t really make an audience idolize a dacoit.

Unfortunately, Dhulia’s good person v/s bad person dilemma shows in his portrayal of the protagonist, making the character fall a little flat on its face. Three quarters of the movie down, you don’t know what you feel towards Tomar. You feel more and more distanced from his life’s misery and wonder how Dhulia is going to wrap up this whole drama. Maybe if Dhulia hadn’t tried convincing us of Tomar’s inherent goodness and just stuck to a narrative on his life, we’d have a more convincing movie.

In a nutshell, the second half completely lacked the meat required to support a pretty strong first half. Add to the fact that the story is very reminiscent of Dilip Kumar’s Ganga Jamuna. Just like Tomar, Ganga is a extremely law-abiding, straight-forward person, naïve person whose circumstances make him the village dacoit. But in Ganga's case, you completely get why he picks up that gun and rebels. You are convinced, too. But with Tomar, are you convinced he had no other choice before taking the extreme steps he did? Well, I’m not. 

Another important question. What issue(s) is this movie trying to raise before me?

That sportsmen die hungry in India and that no one cares for them?

That everyone, including the police, is corrupt?

That corruption is prevalent even in the most backward of Indian villages?

That sportsmen deserve justice and will turn dacoits if not heeded to?

That sometimes, when no one gets you justice, you have to take the law in your own hands?

Maybe it addresses all of them, but I can’t say I’m sure. And that’s my problem. I believe that somewhere, the extremely vital point of how this country doesn’t care for its sportsmen is lost in the rebelling and the 'dacoitism' and the family feuds. You can’t link anything in the end, with each issue becoming a separate entity. Take away the entire dejected sportsperson angle from the movie, and it still stands by itself. So why the need for that angle at all?

You can refute all my arguments by telling me this is a true story and one can’t really question someone's life.  And there exactly lies my disappointment. If it’s a true story, then excuse me, but your flawed research into the psyche of the man is showing. I can’t completely sympathize with Tomar, because you haven’t given me enough reason to. I can’t hate him completely, because you keep telling me he’s not all evil. I’m stuck somewhere in between, completely undecided on whether I like Tomar or not. And I’m not sure that’s a great place for me to be in. I don’t even care if he’s caught by the cops in the end.

Well, this could have been a great movie. Maybe you still think it is. Maybe I reason too much. Maybe the way I think is flawed. Or maybe I expect perfection.

Sorry, but Paan Singh Tomar didn’t work for me at all. Your saving grace was that fort of talent, Irrfan Khan, but that says nothing about the movie, does it?

P.S. Where the fuck did Tomar’s daughter disappear to, without a trace? Someone please investigate while I go back to not caring.


Aditi Sharma said...

after a long time after shingham we are seeing meaning ful cinema altogether ajay davgun & ifran are real actors there eyes speaks they are the legends in morden indian cinema .... other khans are for just money business .

Unknown said...

Your expectations are from Dhulia and not Vishal Bharadwaj. I could have understood the rage then. As we discussed last night, the movie should have ended at the first half itself. It's a true story, so the plot was interesting before it was written for the movie. And that plot/premise is where the first half ends. The second half is where the director wanted to "explore the character" or give his own "interpretation" of what he had read. I'm not taking away credit from the director which he deserves for the initial bit. We can go on and on. Let me just end it with Joker's words which fit for the harvey dent in question here - Dhulia, "You Either Die a Hero, or You Live Long Enough To See Yourself Become the Villain" He directed long enough to become the villain.

vissal santh said...

Many thanks for this blogpost. I am glad you watched and liked this film; in my opinion, it is the best that Bollywood has produced thus far this year. You have already pointed out the important issues the film highlights, so I won’t go into that. Instead, allow me to comment upon a few aspects of the film that I found impressive.

(i) It is very well-paced, capturing the entire trajectory of a man’s life within a running time of two hours or so, and not allowing the story to drag at any point. This is much easier said than done: to compress years, even decades, into minutes and hours requires a thorough understanding of the principles of storytelling. One has to convey the passing of time without letting too much time pass, and the dramatically interesting portions have to be highlighted while also allowing the quieter, more low-key moments to register. And I think Tigmanshu Dhulia, the director, has achieved this remarkably well. I appreciated how he divided the film into two clear halves, one showing Paan Singh Tomar’s life before he became a dacoit (as well as the factors that compel him to become one), and the other showing his life after he chooses to add his name to the list of ‘baaghis’ in Chambal. Not only does this give us a distinct, chronological understanding of his life, it also helps accentuate the tragedy of a fundamentally decent man being forced to resort to crime to save his family and salvage for himself the respect that the world refused to show him until he demanded it at gunpoint. And while Dhulia has used the drama of Paan Singh’s life as an athlete and as an outlaw to optimum effect, he has also allowed the man behind the legend to shine through, especially in the scenes with Paan Singh and his wife, as well as in his interactions with the members of his gang. These are the quieter moments that I spoke of, the ones that help in fleshing out the protagonist’s character. The moving back-and-forth in time—Paan Singh being interviewed in the present, and him retelling the events of the past—is also skillfully done. To sum up, every minute of the screen time has been used to convey something, either about the character of Paan Singh, or about the milieu that made him who he was. That’s some masterful filmmaking at work.