What does this mean? This means, perhaps, from now on, there would many more mainstream Bollywood project with Khan in the lead, not as a comic sidekick or part of an ensemble cast, as he has been doing so far.
There was never a shadow of doubt about Khan’s talent. What he needed was a vehicle to catapult him to the top.
Till date, he was an actor, not a star. Consider this, a few years ago, Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor was cast in a Hollywood film, which was feted at the Oscar, and soon Mr Kapoor started working towards more Hollywood roles, and every time he is in Hollywood, it made big news in Indian media (‘MI 4’). Contrast Mr Kapoor with Khan. He has acted in numerous Hollywood ventures, from Wes Anderson’s ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ to yet-be-released ‘The Amazing Spiderman’, but how much of it you read in your neighbourhood gossip magazines. None.
And, on March 2, PST becomes the first most-talked-about Hindi film of the year, which itself is an achievement. The coverage the film has generated in the media not only will boost the film’s performance in the box office, it also brings to light the real-life story of the man in question, a sportsman turned into dacoit, and also highlights the fact how sportsmen are not given their due in the country, barring cricket, and undeservedly so.
This is also his moment in the sun for Tigmanshu Dhulia, the director, who has been in Bollywood for sometimes now, but could not really break into the big leagues, despite a consistent track record, since the drug drama ‘Haasil’ to last year’s ‘Saheb, Biwi and Gangster’. Today, everyone knows who this guy is and what he can do, within the modest budget he is forced to work with.
As PST gets universally favourable reviews, there is one thing I have noticed how every critic is going gaga about Irrfan Khan’s performance, using expressions which are usually reserved for showy, glamorous, shall we say, sexy presentations. In short, everyone is saying, “You cannot just take your eyes off Irrfan Khan in ‘Paan Singh Tomar’.” He’s that good. We don’t doubt it.
Here’s what critics are saying...
Writes Rachel Saltz in New York Times:
The film’s first half has some of a sports movie’s excitement, made more interesting by its details and milieu: India, the army, the competitions abroad. (Given his first pair of spiked running shoes right before a race in Tokyo, he pulls them off midway through and finishes barefoot.) The second half, following his outlaw career, may seem more familiar; it plays like a western (and looks like “Sholay”), with Paan Singh and his gang operating from the rocky countryside.
Both halves are elevated by Mr. Khan. Without romanticizing Paan Singh, he shows his basic honesty and gives him real depth. As an actor Mr. Khan rarely does the expected. You can’t take your eyes off him.
Writes Aseem Chhabra:
Towards the middle (of the film), Irrfan Khan, who plays the title character, 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. 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 the film. But the simple scene holds together because of Khan's performance, one of the best in his long career and comparable with his heartbreaking roles in ‘The Namesake’ and the HBO series ‘In Treatment’.
Khan is a national treasure, a unique gifted Indian actor who uses his eyes, voice and other facial features to display the humor and then pathos in his characters.
There are many such remarkable scenes in Dhulia's film -- a compelling biopic about a natural sportsman and an Indian steeplechase champion from a village in Madhya Pradesh, who upon retiring became a notorious dacoit (or a rebel as Tomar reminds us towards the beginning of the film. 'Dacoits are found in the parliament,' he says with a nearly straight face).
The notorious ravines that become their abode are akin to Dhulia’s filmmaker mind that has time and again brought to the silver screen stories from India’s interiors (Shagird, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster). Dhulia’s taken special care to write the dialogue in a dialect that is just natural to the story and setting. The screenplay never wavers to accommodate commercial compulsions. No doubt Dhulia chose Irrfan to play Paan Singh.
He takes his distinct understated acting style to a new level, never losing effectiveness. Goondaism looks as glamorous and acceptable as athletics, only because of Irrfan’s spectacular performance. Dhulia’s treatment is such that his audience goes ‘tsk tsk’ when Paan Singh’s men are shot, and his critics will be up in arms against him for glorifying a bunch of dacoits. Who cares.
Writes Pratim Gupta in Telegraph:
If Dhulia sparkles off screen, Irrfan is simply incredible as the helpless runner-turned-rebel. For an actor whose career is punctuated with one sparkling performance after another, Paan Singh Tomar is right up there with Rannvijay Singh (Haasil), Monty (Life in a… Metro) and Ashoke Ganguli (The Namesake).
But perhaps because of the kind of message this film sends across and the sheer volume of his role, Irrfan’s Paan may be the most important character of his career till now. Getting into the torn rubber shoes of a hungry athlete and then into the dusty khakees of a bloodthirsty Chambal dacoit, the actor takes you along on the ride and never lets you go.
There are hurdles and ditches — particularly in the slightly directionless second half — but you want to finish the race with Paan. And that’s because of Irrfan.
More on PST Here.
Paan Singh Tomar
Paan Singh Tomar was born in 1932 in a poor family in village Bhindosa in district Morena, MP. In 1949, he joined the army as a recruit. Competence and diligence soon metamorphosed him into an ace athlete. However, his glorious army and sports career came to an end in 1972. Babu Singh, a close relative of his had acquired the land belonging to Tomar’s elder brother Matadin. Tomar’s attempts to reclaim his brother’s land proved futile, and in a fit of rage, he murdered Singh in 1979. He absconded and was later joined by his brother and nephew, soon turning into a dreaded dacoit gang of the Chambal valley.