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How Irrfan brought Paan Singh Tomar to life on screen

Last updated on: February 21, 2012 12:16 IST

How Irrfan brought Paan Singh Tomar to life on screen

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Director Tigmanshu Dhulia's new film Pan Singh Tomar unearths the fascinating but little-known tale of a medal-winning athlete and armyman who became a dacoit.

Paan Singh Tomar, which releases on March 2, two years after it was completed (producer UTV Spotboy had other movies it wanted released first), is the remarkable story of an athlete and a soldier who became a dacoit, part of the dreaded patheon of Chambal Valley dakus who included Phoolan Devi and Man Singh.

Paan Singh Tomar was an exceptional athlete, who ruled the steeplechase event (a 3,000 metre obstacle race that includes a water jump) at the National Games seven years in a row (his record stood unbeaten for 10 years) in the 1950s and 1960s, and represented India at international competitions.

He was a Subedar in the Indian army when he took premature retirement to go back to his village near Morena in Madhya Pradesh. There he became entangled in a dispute over land.

He approached the police and the panchayat, but got no help, even though he showed them his gold medals and newspaper cuttings and photographs of his exploits. So he decided to take the law into his hands and eventually became a dacoit. He died in a gunbattle with the police in 1981, at the age of 50.


Image: Movie poster of Paan Singh Tomar


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'The moment I read the story I knew it had potential'

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Dhulia chanced upon Tomar quite by accident in an article in Sunday (the magazine from the ABP Group that has since closed down).

That was in 1991 and Dhulia was working then as casting director on Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen (which too was shot in the Chambal valley).

"The moment I read it, I knew the story had potential and could be made as a commercial film. I decided that the day I became a director, I'd make the film," he said.

Dhulia had no idea where to start; all he knew was the name of the village Tomar came from. To make things worse, Dhulia twice lost the magazine with the article on Tomar and had to retrieve it from the ABP archives.


Image: Irrfan Khan in Paan Singh Tomar


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'It took nearly two decades of research to flesh out Tomar's life'

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Also, he didn't have a producer. "I could not write this film sitting in a closed room because it needed research, and no producer was ready to invest in research since Bollywood does not encourage such discipline," says Dhulia. He finally found a producer in UTV Spotboy, which agreed to fund his research.

It took extensive research, lasting nearly two decades, to flesh out Tomar's life. The painstaking research shows in the quality of authenticity that shines through the film.

Dhulia's team met Tomar's wife, Indra, and his son, but they had to be convinced first that they were filmmakers, and not from the police or army.

"We met a couple of dacoits who told us to make the film on them because they had kidnapped many people and committed many murders. We also met Mohar Singh, a former dacoit, to get information. On the way back from our meeting with Mohar Singh, we met a guard who told us how Tomar was killed and related stories."

Dhulia's team met legendary athlete Milkha Singh to flesh out the sporting scenario of the times. The film's Facebook page mentions J S Saini, a former national coach who coached Paana, as Tomar was called, till 1963, and knew him closely. The latter's athletic career gave no indication of what he would become, Saini is quoted as having told Dhulia.


Image: Irrfan Khan in Paan Singh Tomar


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'Irrfan Khan underwent rigorous training under national coach Satpal Singh'

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Becoming a bandit was commonplace in the Chambal valley -- often it was considered a matter of pride. But Tomar wasn't proud of being a bandit and is reported to have often said: "Nobody knew me as a sportsperson; people recognised me only after I became a bandit."

"You have to be true to character," says Dhulia. "Tomar was not just another athlete. He was special. I had to create that world. In Hindi films, dacoits are always on horseback. However, a horse cannot move even two inches on that terrain, which is why Chambal dacoits are always on foot."

Research was not, however, the only thing that held up filming. Lead actor Irrfan Khan had a number of accidents, reports actor Vipin Sharma (of Taare Zameen Par fame), breaking his nose and ankle a few times. Khan had earlier worked with Dhulia in Haasil and his presence was clearly catalytic to the film -- Dhulia seems to have always had Khan in mind to play Tomar.

"It's not an easy role to play," says Dhulia. Khan underwent rigorous training in steeplechase under national coach Satpal Singh for his role. "For about a month, Satpal Singh was also present on location and helped provide details of the steeplechase event," says Dhulia.

Khan's role went beyond acting too. For instance, it was Khan who decided that Vipin Sharma should play the role of an army major.


Image: Irrfan Khan in Paan Singh Tomar


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'We have modified some Bundeli words to give it a pan-India touch'

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Paan Singh Tomar's script has been co-written by Dhulia and Sanjay Chouhan (Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara, I am Kalaam and Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster).

It draws inspiration from the 15th century folktale of the two warrior brothers, Aalha and Mudal, and how they were provoked into war.

Chouhan is a native of Bhopal and so knows the dialect. "We have used Bundeli (or Budelkhandi) for Paan Singh Tomar. It is spoken in the Chambal valley, all the way from Sagar, Shivpuri, and Gwalior, to parts of Dholpur in Rajasthan," says Chouhan.
"We have modified some words to give it a pan-India touch. For instance, we have replaced 'bairi' with 'dushmani' and 'kacheri' with 'court' as 'kacheri' is a form of abuse in Bundeli."

Bundeli is not easy to pick up or understand, so Dhulia selected actors who had a background in theatre, preferably some exposure to Bundeli plays. Khan, and the other major actors -- Sharma, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Imran Hasnee (who is a native of Bhopal) -- are products of the National School of Drama where Bundeli plays are regularly staged.

"We wanted to be as authentic as we could. We did a small workshop for Mahie Gill (who plays Indra, Tomar's wife), who has mostly done Hindi films and is a Punjabi, and a few others, to retain authenticity in dialogue delivery. I was on the sets of Paan Singh for about 20 days to help the cast," Chouhan says.


Image: Irrfan Khan in Paan Singh Tomar


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Made over a short 65-day schedule, the film cost Rs 7 crore

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Paan Singh Tomar was made over a short 65-day schedule and cost Rs 7 crore.

It was shot in the Chambal valley, in the jungles of Dholpur, Rajasthan and the Jim Corbett National Park, Roorkee (where Tomar was posted) and Dehradun. The film has three songs by music composer and singer Sandeep Chowta; the music is by Abhishek Ray.

The film revolves mostly around the Chambal river, that flows through Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. As Chouhan writes in the script: "The locals believe that anybody who has drunk the water of the Chambal won't spare the enemy at any cost."

Paan Singh Tomar has already been screened at the London Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, South Asian International Film Festival 2010 and New York Film Festival, where it got rave reviews.


Image: Irrfan Khan in Paan Singh Tomar


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