Although director Tigmanshu Dhulia has emerged as a key voice in the mainstream of Indian cinema, his last three films including Paan Singh Tomar were NOT released theatrically in the UK. Such a sorry state of affairs echoes real and immediate concerns to do with the way in which distribution is so narrow. Indian distributors based in the UK continue to select films on their commercial appeal rather than cinematic merits, which has led to many of the best Indian films never making it to cinema screens. Star power continues to be the defining criteria that distributors use to select Indian films. This has led to mediocre and pretty terrible films being exhibited in UK cinema screens – namely those starring Akshay Kumar. Shagird, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar are impressive genre films yet none of them feature an A list bankable star, thus their commerical prospects have suffered notably in foreign territories such as the UK. Thankfully, Paan Singh Tomar has been a sleeper hit in India. The film opened to a strong critical response with many praising Irfan Khan’s performance. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia has slowly worked his way up through the film industry. He started as a casting director on Bandit Queen then worked as a scriptwriter on Dil Se. His career as a film director took off with his debut Haasil in 2003, followed by Charas in 2004. It is only recently that Dhulia has become more prolific and with this increase in output, he has proved himself to be a formidable genre director with real range. Dhulia’s most recent film is a historical biopic, retracing the varied life of a forgotten national athlete and hero Paan Singh Tomar, played brilliantly by Irfan Khan. (Strangely enough Paan Singh Tomar was made in 2010 before both Shagird and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster but suffered from a delayed release). Paan Singh’s trials are related to a journalist, triggering a series of flashbacks that cover his most famous exploits including his radical transformation from national hero to feared bandit.
The first half deals with Paan Singh’s time in the Indian army and his rise to fame as a medal winning steeple chase runner. Although Paan Singh is encouraged to become an athlete, his participation in many of the races points to a disinterest from the Indian government in supporting athletics as a worthwhile cause. The second half offers a radically different narrative with Paan Singh involved in a dispute over land, leading to violent conflict within the family. At first Paan Singh attempts to resolve the conflict by involving the local police but he is confronted with incompetence and corruption, ridiculing his status as a national hero. When his family is attacked, Paan Singh retaliates by attacking the despotic thugs who control the land and crops. It is not long before Paan Singh becomes an outlaw, forced to go on the run with his group of bandits. Dhulia’s experience of working on Bandit Queen is quite telling in these sequences and arguably the narrative develops into a full blown modern tragedy. What really holds all of this together is the towering performance by Irfan Khan who delivers a moving study of Paan Singh. Interestingly, Dhulia also worked as a casting director on Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior, which also starred Irfan Khan, and he also employs the rural outlands of India, in this case the Chambal Valley, as a perfect aesthetic backdrop for the eventual marginalisation of Paan Singh and his bandits. This is close to perfect as grown up mainstream Indian cinema and is certainly one of the more memorable Indian films of the year.