Alfred Hitchcock once said, of films, that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. He may have been referring to biopics, a genre hugely popular in the West (recently, The Iron Lady, J Edgar), but somehow not very successful in India.
Even if one does make a film based on an actual person's life, then there are a few things that become taboo - the person can never be portrayed as too flawed, for one, and if he is a national hero, then he must emerge almost godlike in the end. Legends become glorified lies with the passing of time, and movies on them become tedious and dull.
And then along comes the fearless Tigmanshu Dhulia with the story of a man so flawed that you immediately become protective about him. Even if that man is a criminal.
Spanning a period of 30 years or so, the movie begins in 1980, when a nervous local journalist interviews Paan Singh, who has just killed 9 men in a village. The story then goes back and forth in time, highlighting the important episodes that made the man an integral part of Indian folklore.
Paan Singh Tomar (Irrfan Khan) is a patriotic young man in the newly-independent India of the 1950s. He is from Morena, the district that encompasses the Chambal Division and is notorious for its dacoits. Paan Singh is a stubborn simpleton, who joins the Army because he believes that corruption has not extended its ugly tentacles to this profession.
His obvious enjoyment of a penalty drill brings him to the notice of Major Masand (Vipin Sharma), who then sends him to the sports division of the army. Paan Singh has no ambition as such of becoming an athlete, but the limitless supply of food provided to training sportsperson is enough to keep him happy.
He goes on to become the steeplechase champion in the National Games, and even represents India abroad. His only grouse is that he is not allowed to participate in actual wars, since he is a national asset who cannot be exposed to risk.
Adverse circumstances at home force him to opt for a premature retirement, and he goes back to his village. When he realises his own helplessness in the face of corrupt officials who avoid helping him, he picks up a rifle, forms a gang (comprising relatives and friends), and takes matters into his own hands. He becomes, in his own words, a rebel; although the world calls him a dacoit. Thus begins the ill-fated journey of the ex-champion, into a world of terror and crime.
The director and his team have delved deep into research on the amazing life of the soldier-turned-rebel, and delivered one of the best stories told on the big screen in a long time. The only shortcoming in this otherwise flawless screenplay is the hurried narration of the athlete's younger years. Not much attention is paid to Paan Singh's achievements. He runs, wins, goes abroad and then comes back to the army.
And his relationships with the women in his life - mother, wife and daughter - are not explored in depth. Paan Singh's brother, son and nephew, however, have an impact on his decisions.
The first half has an exciting pace, but that is mostly because there is a variety in the series of incidents that lead him to his ultimate career. After intermission, the movie has a different sort of thrill, as Paan Singh spends his days and nights running across barren land to evade the police force.
This is Irrfan Khan's movie all the way. In a recent interview, the actor admitted that this has been the "most physically and mentally demanding" movie of his career. He is perfect, whether he is a young soldier or an older gang leader, or even the sexually-active and loyal husband who bribes his children to leave the house so that he can make love to his wife. You feel for the man as he carries his certificates and medals in an effort to confirm his identity as a patriot, in the hope that his country can now repay him for services rendered - all in vain, of course.
The other actors pale in comparison, but they deliver stellar performances nevertheless. Tigmanshu Dhulia knows how to pick his cast.
And he definitely knows how to pick his locations. Shot mostly in the areas that Paan Singh Tomar once inhabited, from the Army barracks of Roorkee, to the ravines of Chambal. Cinematography is excellent, but lacks drama in the steeplechase sequences. The production design is well-researched, and the music adds to the authenticity of the environment that Paan Singh was a part of.
The director dedicates this movie to all the forgotten sports heroes who faded into oblivion, largely because they were not cricketers. Paan Singh Tomar was one such legend, immortalised now in one of the best biopics that this country has ever produced.