Of runner, dacoits and rebels

Gautaman Bhaskaran
Filed on October 24, 2010

ABU DHABI - Paan Singh Tomar, which had its world premier at the 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.

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 up provoked Tomar to use his gun not to defend his motherland, but to protect himself and his family. The bullets soon became his friends when he found that the Army he had served and made proud of with his sports medals soon forgot him.

Dhulia, with critically acclaimed works such as Hassil in 2000 and Charas in 2003, said 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. 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.

“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”.

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 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 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, the Bandit Queen of course.

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