Paan Singh Tomar, which had its world premier on Wednesday night at the ongoing Abu Dhabi Film Festival, is a classic story of a runner turning rebel. Helmed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, it is set in the badlands of Chambal, where dacoits still rule with their own sense of justice and punishment. Of course, they do not call themselves dacoits, but rebels or baagis, although they kidnap for ransom, buy weapons illegally and kill at random, though being careful enough to protect and preserve their own clan and community.
Tomar was, of course, real, who lived in Madhya Pradesh. Driven by a patriotic zeal, he joined the army soon to become a champion runner in steeplechase ruling the game for seven years in a row with an unbeaten 10-year record in the sport. He represented India at the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games, and rose to become a subedar in the Army.However, a family dispute over his landholding that led to his aged mother and young son being brutally beaten provoked Tomar to use his gun not to defend his motherland, but to protect himself and his family. The bullets soon
Dhulia -- with critically acclaimed works such as Hassil in 2000 and Charas in 2003 – said during a long chat with me this morning at Abu Dhabi that Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen on dacoit Phoolan Devi (where he worked as an assistant) inspired him to think about another outlaw, Paan Singh Tomar. “He actually operated in the same areas where Phoolan Devi did, and I shot Paan Singh Tomar exactly where Kapur made his Bandit Queen. That is Bholpur, close to Agra”. And when he read an article on Tomar in “Sunday”, a magazine once published from Kolkata, Dhulia’s desire to make a movie on the rebel grew further.
While everybody asked him to write a script and get on with filming, “I just could not do it without research, and Tomar is no Gandhi. There is very little written about him. And you know in our country, nobody really pays for research”, rues Dhulia. But he was lucky, when UTV Motion Pictures agreed to fund his research and produce his movie.
Dhulia agrees that in the case of Phoolan Devi and Tomar, it was the system that forced them into crime. Phoolan was a poor Dalit girl exploited by upper castes, till she was raped and ravished, a humiliation that blinded her to reason. With Tomar, it was different. The police stood as mute spectators while his family was abused, his land taken away, his crop destroyed, and his meritorious past as a star sportsman in the Indian Army merely jeered at by the administration. Tomar does resist taking up the gun till he is forced to the precipice, and when he does that there is no stopping him. Like the sport, he says, he would only stop at the finishing line. And that line is one that precariously separates Tomar’s life and death.
Dhulia said that the actual shooting itself was fraught with impediments, much like the steeplechase obstacles that Irrfan Khan’s Tomar faces. Khan tore the ligament in his leg, and could not run at all in a film that was all about running and jumping. For six months, the shoot had to be put off, and the project that was to finish in eight months took another 12.
Jaggan Gujjar was another major stumbling block: he was a dreaded dacoit who was operating in the same area where Dhulia was shooting. “We were really scared, because that guy was known to chop off people’s fingers and things like that”. But as luck would have it, Gujjar surrendered, and even then Dhulia hired a few surrendered dacoits to protect his unit.
With a great performance by Khan as Tomar, Dhulia’s latest creation is extremely engaging, and to me it appeared several notched higher than the original tale of dacoit. Why Bandit Queen of course.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has been covering major film festivals across continents, and is now in Abu Dhabi)