You seriously wonder when you see a film like Paan Singh Tomar as to why was it sitting in the cans when it's been ready for quite a while now. And then to make things worse, it gets released in an ultra low key manner without even adequate publicity. If this is the value and respect given to better cinema in Bollywood, it just shows we will never go beyond the pitiful star driven Housefulls and Golmaals.
That said, Tigmanshu Dhulia's rousing biopic on one of India's greatest athletes, also an army man, who turned to the gun against an indifferent and callous system, finally settles down as an extremely watchable film let down by a relatively disappointing second half after a riveting enough first one. Yes, yet another film falls to the interval syndrome again, which makes Paan Singh Tomar a rather good film that, however, falls a little short of being a great one.
The film has much going for it, no doubt. The production design, the sequences in the barracks (shot in Roorkee) as well as the athletic ones have a distinct feel about them and the film scores in its moments of light humour as well. The apathy of the system towards men who brought the country honour and now languish anonymously is brought out tellingly. The local dialect and the dialogue is used extremely well and the actors too deliver big time. Paan Singh Tomar's character is fleshed out beautifully and so are each of the minor characters as well.
But ultimately, it is the admittedly lopsided screenplay that lets down the film. While, as mentioned the first half is extremely engaging, far too much happens in the story as it traces Tomar's journey from joining the army to his rise as an athlete to his premature retirement to his taking up the gun. Phew! Also, this renders the film episodic rather than give a layer to the narrative. For instance, the family problem over land comes much too sudden into the main narrative. Especially so as this is the thread that makes Tomar change his life. Consequently, the second half hasn't got much substance beyond Tomar's dacoit days leading to his final killing and gets into deja vu territory more than once. And though there is enough action here, this half actually draws you out of the film and kind of alienates you from the main story and character, a pity because till then you are one with Tomar and all that he goes through. The cross cutting between Tomar the athlete and his death at the end is rather obvious and a cliche one has seen too many times now in that effort to end the film on a poignant high. Doesn't quite work well enough here.
Irrfan Khan lives the title role, no two ways about it and raises the film a notch or two. It is one of the finest performances seen in Hindi cinema in recent times. He stretches himself physically and captures every shade, every nuance of his character from the skinny jawan who joins the army to his final killing in a police encounter beautifully. Just see him perform in the scene where his Commanding Officer gives him the block of ice-cream after he tells him of his pre-mature retirement or the wry and wistful half-smile he gives his son as he walks away from him after they have met. Or the emotions that flit across his face when he comes back incognito to the barracks and observes the sportsmen at practice in the above scene. Or even... ah well, you get the drift. Put simply, it is a masterful performance by an actor at the peak of his powers who is on the run through the film - within or outside the law.
The supporting cast is brilliantly cast and spot on. Still, special mention must be made of Vipin Sharma as Tomar's Commanding Officer and Brijendra Kala, the latter as a terrified journalist who interviews the dreaded dacoit Paan Singh Tomar and through whose interview we see Tomar's journey. Zakir Hussain delivers with his small cameo. However, Mahie Gill is now getting typecast as the spunky, sultry woman and seems to stick out amongst the cast, always 'acting'.
The technicalities go well with the film and here one has to again mention the attention paid to detail and the superb use of real locations. However, the editing is a bit too razor sharp and even jerky at times when just a little more holding on could have given that reflective feeling far better. The demands in keeping the rapid pace set up by the first half, perhaps?
All in all, Paan Singh Tomar, after quite a while, reiterates the fact that there is scope after all to make a better film within Hindi cinema's constraints. Although, just like the film highlights the fact that many of India's athletes (outside cricket of course!) who brought glory to the country are forgotten and abandoned, the film itself has been the victim of callous neglect. You could correct that by going for it. It's well worth a watch!
PS: I have sometimes seen reviews in upperstall where the poor fellow reviewer stuck in a disastrously poor film mentioned that the trailer of an upcoming film was the best thing he saw. Well, here the trailer of Housefull 2 just had you gobsmacked as you got a potent reminder (yet again) as to how low mainstream Bollywood has sunk in recent times.