Sure-shot Irrfan

Shashi Baliga | Updated on March 12, 2012 Published on March 08, 2012

Incredible outing: Irrfan in, and as Paan Singh Tomar

The actor delivers a spellbinding performance yet again, in Paan Singh Tomar.

If you despair for Hindi cinema (as we so often do), if you are a sports lover, if you're constantly comparing Bollywood to Hollywood — if any or all three conditions apply, go see Paan Singh Tomar. If you think Irrfan (he's dropped the Khan) deserves to be called India's best actor, you'll probably have seen Paan Singh Tomar by now. And may your tribe increase.

This is not just the season for biopics, but kick-ass biopics. First The Dirty Picture, now this. If you've been reading the reviews for the movie, you'll know that all critics, reviewers and observers (this one included) agree Irrfan has turned in an incredibly honest performance as the real-life steeplechase champion who turned dacoit.

The critics have not been as unanimous about the film itself, many complaining that the second half is “slow”. I wouldn't agree with that criticism myself; I would say the transformation of a disciplined, law-abiding sports champion into a rebel would need that kind of time if it has to be credible.

Especially since Irrfan has imbued the role with an authenticity that you rarely, rarely get to see in commercial Hindi cinema. He brings to his character innocence, betrayal, despair, tenderness and a spine-tingling honesty. Plus, a physicality that makes all that talk of six-packs and beefcake seem so cosmetic and almost sissyish in comparison. As with other great actors like Naseeruddin Shah or Om Puri, Irrfan doesn't have the on-screen charm or the seductive powers of a ‘matinee idol', so his acting does all the work. This is one of the best performances by an Indian actor in recent times: don't miss it, whether on screen, DVD or TV.

Having gushed thus far, I also have to warn you in all fairness that this is not ‘entertaining' cinema in the commercial sense. It's gripping, has quite a bit of action and its moments of humour, but no item number, no dances even, no glamming up whatsoever. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia cut his cinematic teeth working with Shekhar Kapur on Bandit Queen (which is when he heard of the Paan Singh Tomar story) and it shows.

The locations, which include the notorious ravines of the Chambal valley, are grimy, dust-ridden and unpolished. Many actors in the ensemble cast look like they've been plucked straight from their farms and their crumbling huts. Irrfan has no ‘get-ups' in that time-honoured Bollywood phrase; his wardrobe make Aamir Khan's rustic clothes in Lagaan seem like they've come out of a laundry. The children are not cutesy; they're just real. (Think Peepli Live for the closest comparison). And — I hate to say this but I must if I'm honest — I thought the lead actress, Mahie Gill, could have done with some makeup.

Which made me think: what price reality and authenticity? Much as I hope this film makes pots of money, I do wonder: Could it have been sanitised just a wee bit to make it more palatable for the box-office? I'm not talking of glamming up, just some softening. If we accept that cinema, by its very nature, cannot be 100 per cent authentic, how much of ‘reality' can one sacrifice for the greater purpose of reaching out to a larger audience?

Then I compared this film to other sports movies because Paan Singh Tomar is, at its core, a story about a sportsman, even if it rises far above that into questions of patriotism, entitlement and betrayal. It even ends with a tribute to the unsung heroes of Indian sports. If you consider films like Chak De, Iqbal or, of course, Lagaan, all of which scored on both critical acclaim and commercial success, you will realise how ‘real' has been softened by cinematography, costumes, set design, production qualities and many other means.

In contrast, Paan Singh Tomar exhibits a pimples-and-all documentary-style reality. That is its artistic strength, but could it also be a weakness? Would tinkering with this style be a perfectly valid strategy for a feature film, a compromise, or stooping to conquer? If we are game for a suspension of disbelief the moment we enter a cinema hall, how much reality do we need?

Honestly, I can't say. I'm not a film-maker, so I couldn't really answer that from a position behind the camera. But I can say, from my position as a member of the ticket-paying audience and as a believer in Hindi cinema, that I wouldn't have minded some ‘compromises'.

The lack of them did not, in any way, mar my enjoyment of Paan Singh Tomar; if anything, it increased my respect for the film. But a sprinkling of such ‘compromises' would not have lessened my respect, either. If that sounds somewhat confused to you, yes, I am in two minds.

For more clarity, perhaps I'll have to wait for Rakeysh Mehra's Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, his biopic of legendary runner Milkha Singh. I might find some answers there. And then again, I may not. I'll just have to take my chances, I guess.

Till then, please try to catch Irrfan's performance. It's a shame, but a reality one has to live with, that actors like him will never get their due in Bollywood. When you make the critics go weak in the knees instead of the girls, there's just so far you can go in glossy B-town. Luckily for Irrfan, Hollywood has the hots for him.

While tonnes of newsprint and hours of air-time were expended on Hrithik Roshan's and Aishwarya Rai's foray into Hollywood and Anil Kapoor's recent success there, how much hype has there been around Irrfan's roles in The Namesake, A Mighty Heart, Slumdog Millionaire, the upcoming Life of Pi and the next Spiderman movie?

Oh well, yeh hai Bollywood meri jaan. Perhaps things will improve. Perhaps that leap you see on the Paan Singh Tomar poster will turn out to be a leap of faith after all.

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Published on March 08, 2012
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