“Desh ke liye daude to kisi ne na pucha, ab baaghi ban gaye to sab ehi naam jap rahe- Paan Singh, Paan Singh!”
Irrfan Khan immortalized the character of Paan Singh Tomar on silver screen- the soldier in the Indaian Army who was a steeplechase champion but turned to be a dreaded Chambal dacoit.
Paan Singh Tomar served in the Indian Army where his athletic ability was noticed. He went on to become the national champion of Steeplechase for seven years. His national record of 9:02 seconds in the 3000-metre steeplechase event remained unbroken for 10 years. Paan Singh Tomar represented India at the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo. After a premature retirement from the army, Tomar returned to his native village but became infamous as a Chambal dacoit when he resorted to violence after a land feud there.
Director Tigmanshu Dhulia thought of portraying Paan Singh Tomar through his friend Irrfan Khan on the screen. He was already a global star then but accepted the film though knowing that there was financial crunch involved in its making.
“I was completely intrigued when I heard the story narration from Tigmanshu Dhulia. I felt a connect with the character and so could not let go of the project.” [The Indian Express: March 02, 2012]
During the shoot of the film in Roorkee, Irrfan told Time magazine that he was drawn to the story of Paan Singh Tomar because it follows the life of a forgotten hero.
“It talks about our system. It’s a sign for any nation, any society—how much they are prepared to care for a talent.”
Two months prior to the shoot, Irrfan Khan took physical training from a Delhi-based national-level coach on Steeplechase.
“It was difficult but enjoyable. I also undertook lessons on voice modulation and pronouncation as I had to speak in local dialect. [The Indian Express: March 02, 2012]
Irrfan did all the scenes of the races and steeplechase events himself though the director was ready to use a body double. Tigmanshu Dhulia remembered, “Steeplechase was a very challenging event for Irrfan. 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.” [Excerpted from Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star by Aseem Chhabra]
The film was shot in the rough terrains of Chambal and on actual locations where Paan Singh lived, with the locals and in the house where he grew up.
“There were times when the entire cast and crew came together and played cricket. We even flew kites. As it is a bandit-infested area, we were not allowed to venture out of our hotel after 5 pm. As the character required me to be physically fit, hence after the shoot, I would exercise.” [The Indian Express: March 02, 2012]
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,” Tigmanshu Dhulia said, “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 and wearing the army fatigues with heavy shoes. Unfortunately Irrfan had torn the ligament two days before that shoot. “We actually didn’t know what a ligament is,” Dhulia added. “We thought it was a sprain.” [Excerpted from Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star by Aseem Chhabra]
Irrfan Khan lives the title role, his work mesmerizes the audience. The portrayal is considered as one of the finest performances seen in Indian cinema. From a skinny jawan to an outlaw, Khan stretches himself physically and captures every nuance of his character. There are certain defining moments in the film that Irrfan lights up through his naïve yet menacing performance.
By immortalizing a character which was so much unknown to the world, Irrfan Khan painted the unexpected. The master remains in his masterpiece within or outside this world!