The legend of Paan Singh Tomar

Paan Singh Tomar says we are not a sports-crazy nation; we are a nation illiterate about sport, its sustenance and its achievement.

It is not often that Hindi movie creates a new myth out of the fragments of history. It is not often that Hindi film goes beyond the sentimental and create a lean fragment of a different era. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar is a tribute to two genres of the social — the dacoit as rebel and the other unacclaimed hero, our forgotten sportsmen, especially our athletes.
At a time when cricket feels empty or hysterical, when cricketing legends even from small towns feel fat and restless, this is a movie about a steeple chase runner, a national champion, eventually shot down in the ravines of Morena. The sportsman as a hero has never been the toast of Indian history.

We did once talk of Dhyan Chand or a hockey team, and we often talk of richer sports like rifle shooting, tennis, golf, but our real heroes have been athletes or people who played a game that left them in poverty.
The most poignant salute to this story is the tribute at the end of Paan Singh Tomar, to Laxman, the hockey goalkeeper who died penniless, unable to afford medical care, and to Parduman Singh who was so poor that he was forced to sell his medal. The fat cat surplus of cricket or golf seems sybaritic. These were men who served the nation with dignity, yet were completely abandoned. The movie makes a wonderful point. We are not a sports-crazy nation. We are a nation illiterate about sport, its sustenance and its achievement. A roll call of the real heroes of Indian sports, the road runners, the Services sportsmen, the Anglo-India geniuses would leave us cold. Paan Singh Tomar, played by Irrfan Khan, puts it brilliantly in a moment of poignancy. He said, “I won race after race, medal after medal internationally and no one bothered. I became rebel and I am front-page news.”
In a wonderfully brilliant way, one of the subtexts of the film is the indictment of cricket. Cricket is a study in indifference to other forms of heroism. It is a parochial world that is deaf to the tragedy of other sport. The timing of the movie is brilliant. It might drive home Indians’ illiteracy about other sport and its obsessiveness with cricket. Even at its dumbest, India almost always dreams of diversity and yet cricket has become athletics in a rich uniform.
There is a second part to the Paan Singh Tomar story. Remember it begins in 1958, a decade after Independence. The dacoit is emerging as a social type. But this movie makes an interesting point that the making of the rebel comes after the erosion of faith in law. The Nehruvian years saw the death of the tryst with destiny with the decline of law, and the decadence of the cop. The ordinary man desperately believed in law and the sanctity of uniform. Only the military sustained part of the faith. The opposition between the discipline of the Army and the corruption of the police is another subtext of Paan Singh Tomar’s story — the plot proceeds with an angry Army officer fighting the law.
There is a touch of normativeness to the movie. Life as a race is still a sport. There are heroes and they are also heroes who finish second or third but who finish the race. Paan Singh Tomar’s sense of sport as a rule game, of life as one, survives till the end. For him a sportsman is one who fights gamely till the end, even when the odds are stacked against him.
There is laughter about law. When Tomar joins the Army, the recruiting officer asks him whether his uncle was a dacoit. He retorts, “No, a rebel.” The officer persists and asks him whether he was ever in jail. Tomar smiles and says no one in his family has ever been caught. There is a gentle hint that the rebel and not the cop command respect and dignity.
Death seems inevitable to one who breaks the law. Yet the rebel shows it is not death that is important, it is the manner of dying. Death is one sport where even the defeated are victors, listening to the flood of applause around them.
Paan Singh Tomar is the leanest Hindi movie. None of the usual Khans could have played Paan Singh; they would need to be Superman. Irrfan Khan pulls of a stunning performance, lean but never mean, gaunt but muscle hard, with a script which, like his body, has no place for excess.
The body becomes the metaphor for a social morality. A body gone to seed is like the law gone corrupt. A corpulent body like middle-class body is too lethargic to understand the defiance of the poor and the wronged. A disrupted body leads to a violent body. Politic and social harmony need the balanced body. The body of the runner become a symbol of freedom and running, a celebration of the self; the nakedness of the body the truth of the sport demanding, screaming for that extra stride, that dance of daring. That is the politics of the movie.
The movie reincarnates a period piece. The dacoit is a fragment of the Fifties. It takes that vignette and changes it into a fable. The baghi is the straight man who never got a straight chance. Life was never be a level playing field for him.
There is a hint of an alternative script. What if Paan Singh Tomar had remained in the Army, become a coach, and created a new generation of runners, an India of steeple chase champions? The mind plays with the possibility realising ours is not a society that would allow for it. Freedom is a short poetic line running between anonymity and oblivion.

The writer is a social science nomad


Wonderfully written. and also

Wonderfully written. and also aptly written. Hope Paan Singh Tomar makes our Sports ministers acquaint with the fact of poor state of sportsmen in our country (except for cricketers, ofcourse).

Nice refreshing movie.. awesome performances.. nice direction... the race where he runs with spiked shoes and in midway throws off the shoes resulting in loss of race.. the aftermath on hiss emotions is so nicely depicited..

Simply amazing writeup,Paan

Simply amazing writeup,Paan Singh of course had a choice,he took the 'rebel' way out,it is in a way similar to all movies,in that genre,Nana Patekar's Prahaar's,Capt.Vijaykanth in Tamil cinema,honest,military man versus big,bad world of civvies.It is probably a very glorified view of the Army and the soldier,somewhat real and somewhat make believe,even Hollywood does that in Rambo series,e.g.The military man and men are beings who are above mortals with a moral fibre more stronger than rest of the civvies.

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