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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Paan Singh, the glamor-less on a shameless system

A glamour-less Hindi film
on a shameless system

'Impossible', I kept on telling myself while watching the no-song-and-dance, utterly unattractive (in terms of sets and glitz), Bollywood film, Paan Singh Tomar, a biopic on India's steeple chase champion of the 1950s, who turned into a bandit because the government officials turn down his military background and medals when his life becomes embroiled in a land dispute. The movie has no bankable stars
and guaranteed plot, ushering in a new breed of Bollywooders who care to dare. The movie, directed by National School of Drama product Tigmanshu Dhulia has garnered rave reviews in India and across the globe.

Hindi cinema does delve, occasionally, into the grim and gory. Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen is one such example. Dhulia, it is reported, came across the Paan Singh episode when he was working on the sets of Bandit Queen in the Chambal Valley of Madhya Pradesh, central India. The fact that it took so long for Dhulia to bring the
soldier-athlete-bandit saga is because the director wanted a hit movie in his kitty before embarking on a social subject.

In real life, Paan Singh, who was killed in a police encounter in 1981, was the victim of a system that does not help the helpless. The six feet tall villager joined the Indian Army in the hope of getting better food. In an emotional scene, and that is rare, Paan Singh is denied extra chappatis (Indian flatbread). "Go and join the Athletics department to receive nourishing food," he is told. In another scene, as fate would have it, he returns to the camp late from a frustrated
wife - she drops a pot in desperation. Paan Singh's talent for running is discovered by the Army while meting out running as a punishment for tardiness.

"Give the ice-cream before it melts," orders a major and Paan Singh runs to the destination in time, later to be identified as the 'ice-cream man' by the major's wife in the competition that brought Paan Singh a medal. He took part in the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, ran barefoot because he was not used to the spiked trainers provided. For seven years, he reigned as the undefeated champion in steeple chase.

Hurdles came along as he ran the race of life. The second half of the movie, jointly penned by the director and Sanjay Chauhan overtakes Singh as the villain. His 'ancestral land' was grabbed by relatives who turned 'goondas'(thugs) when their authority was questioned. Paan Singh's teenage son is beaten and his aged mother is brutally killed. Paan Singh turns into a bandit with a gang, and exacts revenge that is partly glorified, reaching the 'finish' line of life, by winning our pity.

Paan Singh's revenge is justified when India's officialdom is exposed as the real villain. In a scene, Paan Singh is ridiculed by the police: 'So steeple chase means running in the water. Are you not cold, wearing shorts?'

'Impossible' I thought, as I was watching Irrfan, a forgotten talent in Bollywood just like sports stars who have been wiped off from Incredible India's memory. It is not impossible for Irrfan to find himself at the National Film Awards venue to receive a Best Actor award and for the movie, who knows, to reach the finishing line of the Best Foreign Language film in the next Oscar Awards.

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