“ If you want to know about the research that went into the making of this film, login to YouTube and type Paan Singh Tomar,” says Tigmanshu Dhulia, when asked to share details about the film. For those who have seen the trailers of Dhulia’s biopic Paan Singh Tomar, you will surely admit that these short videos about the film are utterly gripping.
Dhulia, who hasn’t had much success in the past with movies likeHaasil (2003), Charas (2004),Shagird (2011) and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011), is now poised to rub shoulders with the hit makers of the industry with this, his latest release. His audience, hungry to know the what, when, and how of this film’s journey, have got him talking expansively about it—from idea to execution. Dhulia first read about Tomar, the athlete who became a bandit, when he was an assistant director on the sets of Bandit Queen. His subsequent journey was fraught with difficulties from attempting to convince UTV Motion Pictures to produce the film, to trying to meet the police informer who ultimately led the police to Tomar, to releasing the film theatrically two years after finishing the production of the movie just so that it didn’t clash with any other big banner films. In the end Dhulia was gratified to realize his efforts were not in vain, when he realized it reached and touched all demographics, including the youth.
The movie profiles Tomar, who was trained as a distance runner while working for the Indian Army. In the 1950s, he won the National Steeplechase Championship, seven times, and participated in the 1958 Asian Games held in Tokyo. Subsequently he became one of the notorious Chambal Valley dacoits and was killed in a police encounter in 1981.
You first thought of making this film way back in the 1990s but it finally reached theaters only in 2012. Why this delay and what kept you attached to the subject for so long?
I came across an article on Paan Singh Tomar in 1991. Since then, this idea stayed with me because so many colors in one hero is a rarity. Also the feeling of anti-establishment is an evergreen topic, mostly because the government refuses to mend its ways. So Paan Singh’s story stuck to me ever since. Paan Singh went through so much … A farmer, an army man, an athlete and a dacoit. Every aspect of his life is interesting.
The opening conversation of the film draws a connection between baaghi (rebel) and dacoits—is that part of Chambal terminology? Baaghi was used for dacoits in Chambal in Bandit Queen too …
They (the dacoits in the region) like being called Baaghi. Dacoit sounds derogatory (to them).
This film has been compared to Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994). What do you think about the similarities between the two, if any?
Rising against the system is the only similarity between the two films. Otherwise, Bandit Queen contains the germ for sympathy only because it had a woman protagonist. The terrain, the language are the only (other) similarities.
Did you seek permission from Paan Singh’s family before making this film on him? How did they react? And speaking of biopics, which filmmakers in India do you think follow the path of researched moviemaking today?
Yes we got permission from Paan Singh’s immediate family—his son and wife. They were fine with the idea of a biopic on Paan Singh after verifying our credentials. Ashutosh (Gowarikar) made Jodha Akbar, Shyam Benegal madeSubhash Chandra Bose and Rajkumar Santoshi made The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Sukumar Nair made Shaheed–E-Azam, again a Bhagat Singh movie, Santosh Sivan made Ashoka, Ketan Mehta made Sardar Patel … research is important when you are dealing with history. It depends what aspect of it each film maker decides to highlight. Some are more interested in atmosphere, others on drama and personality but they cannot get away from research. Paan Singh is different because no one knew about him, how he looked and what exactly he did. Sadly, in general we don’t follow the discipline of research, which I feel should be done.
Have you watched the recently released, much-appreciated, biopic on southern actress Silk Smitha—Dirty Picture? Did you think it portrayed the life of the late southern actress accurately. I’m sure you are aware that her brother has raised objections against the film makers and producers in court?
Yes I have seen Dirty Picture. I don’t know the exact details of her life, but people close to the person on whose life the film is made, do rise up from the dead to get attention. I faced the same with Paan Singh Tomar. Tomar’s nephew, Balwanta, claimed that we had promised him Rs 40 lakhs for helping with the research. All that is false.
Did it take years to complete the research once UTV funded it? How did you start the process?
I went to Paan Singh’s village first and got details on the whereabouts of his immediate family. From there one link led to the other. It took about eight months to finish the research, started in 2009.
(Note: Several interviews mention he completed the same in 6-7 years!)
As reported, was it difficult to find producers for this film?
In the sense that I did not have a script. I only had an idea. No producer was ready, as they wanted me to first write the script, and I used to say that this was a real life subject, and I need somebody to fund the research. Because we do not have the discipline of research here (in India), no producer was willing. Eventually UTV agreed. They funded the research and we did it and wrote the script and the film happened.
What made you decide on Irrfan for Paan Singh’s role?
I needed an actor who could give me more than his dates … if Irrfan had declined to play Paan Singh, I would have dropped the subject.
Who were the key persons who helped you in the research?
Paan Singh’s wife, Milkha Singh, his coach, Mr. Saini, a friend who ran with Paan Singh and a couple of surrendered dacoits.
Recreating the time between 1950s and 1981—what were the most crucial parts of it for you?
The difficult part was finding the cantonment where Paan Singh was stationed while he was in the army. Because most of the army places, buildings, etc, have been modernized today. We needed an old place. Luckily, Bengal Engineers in Roorkee (in Uttarakhand, India), where Paan Singh was stationed, still has the same old look. So we were lucky with that and decided to shoot there. And the Chambal area is still the same too. We got permission from the Ministry of Defense for shooting in the cantonment.
You hired surrendered and ex-dacoits as private security guards along with police protection. But were there any real time encounters with dacoit gangs that the Chambal region is infested with while you were shooting in that region? Was it risky?
We used to hear that they are operating in the same area, but we did not have any face to face encounter … It was very exciting to shoot there.
Do you think this movie can help his surviving family members in any way?
The film cannot do anything. Paan Singh is dead and gone. The only good thing is that people who are concerned can know more about the people who have served the nation in whatever way they could, and give more respect to them—all our unsung heroes from India, who are living in misery today. Sports authorities and Ministry of Sports can and should help them out in some way. That’s all the film can do.
Did you show the movie to Paan Singh’s family once it was made? How did they react?
The family lives in a very small place, called Babina (Jhansi district, Uttar Pradesh state, India). We only came out with digital prints and I don’t think they have a theatre there that has a digital facility. But I’ve heard that they have seen the film by visiting Gwalior. They must have seen it.
Which is your favorite scene from the film?
It’s very hard to say … But I like the scene where Paan Singh goes to see his wife, son and coach towards the end of the film.
Suchi Sargam is a journalist in India.