Running on mostly empty (GF on Paan Singh Tomar)
It’s now pretty much a cliché to note that the best thing in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar is the performance by its leading man. But in a film culture where talking heads that pass for actors regularly come in for superlative praise by reviewers, it’s not too tasking to add to the chorus on Irfan Khan. Always a magnetic and rather singular presence, Khan forcefully holds Dhulia’s film together, so much so that the story becomes secondary to watching the actor work. And this isn’t only because of Khan’s nuanced, expressive work but because Dhulia’s film needs this kind of performance to give it the sense of dramatic heft it lacks in its storytelling. This is a flawed film and the kind of flawed film that frustrates you not because it’s a bland story with a strong performance in it, but because it is, quite the contrary, a very unique and almost unbelievably true story that isn’t given the kind of treatment it deserves. To put it simply, Khan does more service to Tomar’s story than Dhulia.
A regular criticism I’ve noticed on this film is that it’s too long. I didn’t quite feel that it was a slow film, but there was a sense that, as with many by-the-books biopics, the film after some time was simply going through the motions of telling its story without really taking the time to make any commentary or offer any kind of perspective on the part of the filmmaker. And that’s a shame because Tomar’s story as a national hero turned criminal leader is the kind of material a more interesting filmmaker could have translated into a serious look at political corruption and the effacement of history—something one could reasonably expect when the film begins with Tomar saying he was essentially a child of his nation’s independence. One could posit that Dhulia saw enough inherent political charge in the story here to avoid making things too heavy-handed, but this to me is a weak line of argument because of how evasive a gesture it seems. There was potential to tell this story with some interest in examining the obvious themes, but Dhulia doesn’t seem to care to push the envelope too far here and one can’t necessarily blame him for this but even if he wanted to simply tell Tomar’s story in a straightforward manner one would then want a filmmaker who was more cinematically interesting than is the case here. Because even viewed as a plain biopic, there isn’t anything particularly unique about the filmmaking here.
In this sense while watching this film I kept considering Michael Mann’s Ali—a film about a remarkable athlete who went from being a celebrated national treasure to a maligned enemy of the state. Mann’s film is fully aware of its political charge and it is deeply connected to its protagonists’ ideas on race, history and the basic inequities of the state. But beyond this Mann also makes a movie that has a compelling, breathtaking style and it recreates history in ways that are transporting and that seem to be informed by a filmmaker’s knowledge of his character’s inner journey. In an Indian context, there is of course the peerless example Ratnam sets in his Iruvar biopic, which again tells an amazing true story, but does much more than this and does it in a way that is always cinematically interesting. Dhulia is of course not to be compared to masters and even if he hasn’t made a film here that is some kind of masterpiece, his is still a noble effort for telling the kind of story we don’t see enough of in Hindi cinema, and of course because of its central casting choice.
I’ve liked Irfan Khan more in other films but this is a unique moment in his filmography, in that he’s never before felt more like a proper lead in an Indian film, and he’s never had as much of a character’s life to work with. It makes sense that Khan’s first breakout moment occurred in Asif Kapadia’s quiet, mini-epic The Warrior: this is an actor who can do more with silence than most actors can accomplish with a monologue. In Paan Singh Tomar, his challenge is something different. He has to work against a script that often seems to recoil from really saying something. It’s a different kind of “silencing” that Khan faces here and he meets the challenge admirably. Sometimes it almost seems like there’s another, more provocative movie happening inside the actor—one that we see in fragments here. This is a film that deserves viewership for the story it tells, but also and perhaps even more to spread the gospel on the rather singular powers of Irfan Khan.