When Irrfan Khan’s friend Tigmanshu Dhulia was assisting Shekhar Kapur on Bandit Queen (1994), he came across an article on the dacoit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi in the weekly magazine, Sunday, published by Anandabazar Patrika. It was a cover story, and inside, there was a reference to another dacoit, Paan Singh Tomar, who started his life as an Indian Army soldier. He was a seven-time national steeplechase champion, representing India in the Asian Games, but later, because of a family land dispute, he was forced to take up arms and become a notorious dacoit in the Chambal Valley.
The film Paan Singh Tomar took a long time to make. The actual production started in 2009 when the global recession had set in. A healthy budget of the film that required period details including a recreation of a stadium in Tokyo was cut into half. Everyone took a 50 per cent pay cut, and that included Irrfan Khan who, by then, was on the cusp of becoming a global star. But he accepted the situation, since Paan Singh Tomar was a dream project for him and his friend Tigmanshu Dhulia. Irrfan modelled the Paan Singh character after his father. ‘There are some roles which need models in front of you,’ he told Anupam Kher. ‘I couldn’t find anybody. But I had these images of him (his father). That really helped me. The way he walked, carried himself, that inspired me.’ ‘In a way Paan Singh Tomar was my tribute to my father,’ he added.
Irrfan was 45 years old when the film was released and he did all the scenes of the races and steeplechase events himself.
Tishu was ready to use a body double, yet Irrfan insisted on performing in all the scenes himself. ‘Steeplechase was a very challenging event for Irrfan,’ Tishu says. ‘But Irrfan has been sporty from the beginning. He loves being outdoors. He loves going out of Bombay on location. Give him a kite in his hand and it is blissful for him.’
Despite a trainer working with him, Irrfan had an accident and he tore a ligament. ‘There was no doctor where we were shooting in Chambal,’ Tishu says. ‘We couldn’t figure out what to do.’ There is a scene towards the beginning of the film when Paan Singh is punished and asked to run rounds of a field holding his luggage above his head. He is wearing the army fatigue with heavy shoes. And unfortunately Irrfan had torn the ligament two days before that shoot. ‘We actually didn’t know what a ligament is,’ Tishu adds. ‘We thought it was a sprain.’ Paan Singh Tomar played at New York’s South Asian International Film Festival in late 2011.
The start of my 3.5-star review (Rediff.com): Towards the middle of Tigmanshu Dhulia’s new film, Paan Singh Tomar, Irrfan Khan…stands in a corridor of an army barrack. He has just talked on the phone to his mentor, a major in the army, when a young orderly places a packet of ice cream in Tomar’s hand (it will make sense upon viewing the film). Khan’s Tomar is deeply moved by this gesture. With the camera on his partially lit and weathered face, he gives a wide smile, one hand wiping the tears flowing down his cheeks. It is a beautiful, moving moment in Dhulia’s film.
But the simple scene holds together because of Khan’s performance, one of the best in his long career… Khan is a national treasure, a unique gifted Indian actor who uses his eyes, voice and other facial features to display the humour and then pathos in his characters.
Khan is mesmerizing in the film—an innocent, naïve, charming athlete, a man with a clean heart, who later becomes an angry, menacing outlaw. The camera loves him and it is impossible to look away from the screen when the focus is on him.
There are many moments... where Irrfan gives a side glance, a smile that lights up the entire screen. And the camera captures his charming smile. Tishu says that he never asks Irrfan to give a smile like that. But Irrfan knows he looks good when he gives the smile and so he improvises in many of his films.
‘My approach with Irrfan is different, because we are close friends and we know each other rather well,’ he says. ‘I sometimes give him a reference of a life experience and he immediately understands. I can’t do this with any other actor. Many of our actors are not well educated, but Irrfan—if you give him reference about life or a play—he gets it. He’s a very observant actor.’
Author, journalist and film festival programmer, Chhabra’s bestselling books include Priyanka Chopra: The Incredible Story of a Global Bollywood Star (2018)