Irrfan Khan's magical take on acting and portraying different characters was not news to the world when he was brought in to lead an Indian film by Tigmanshu Dhulia: Paan Singh Tomar. Irrfan was already an acclaimed actor and pretty known to the world when he starred as the former Olympian-turned-dacoit, whose story and life were pretty much unknown to the country he once represented. A story of ambition, betrayal, and rebellion set in the deep terrains of Chambal, it proved, to quote his famous comedic take on the Bollywood Party Song, that Irrfan can do ANYTHING!
Paan Singh Tomar follows an Indian soldier, who is enlisted in the Defence Services' steeplechase team, going on to break national records in the Indian National Games and represent India at the 1958 Asian Games. Forced into voluntary retirement due to his family commitments, he is met with resentment from his elder cousin, Bhanwar Singh in the village, which sparks a fight for land and property between brothers. A feud between Paan's son, and Bhanwar and his goons leads to a major dispute; Paan Singh saves his family but unfortunately loses his mother to a brutal murder. A vengeful Paan Singh, who had received no help from the law, is ultimately forced to take up arms and become a fearful dacoit of Chambal, whom no one would dare to question.
The one thing that Irrfan proves in this role is his sheer ability to change character shades, something Paan Singh's role demanded explicitly. The film, mostly told in flashbacks, starts with an ambitious but uninformed Paan Singh Tomar joining the Indian Army for a job and family security than because of patriotism. While undergoing intensive training, Paan Singh finds his talent, and grooms himself into a record-breaking athlete. Post-intermission, the film goes back to his village days, where Paan Singh has to deal with unprecedented issues, which culminates with him turning to the life of a baaghi, a man defeated by the corrupt and ham-fisted system he never had trust in.
The two versions of Paan Singh bring along a distinguished set of emotions on-screen. A joyful, happy family man, who took pride in his newfound patriotism for his nation, as well as his ability to run hurdles, is suddenly filled with rage, remorse, and vengeance. While the audience is graced with Irrfan's smile in the first half, they see a completely changed look and appeal in his character when he dons the khaki (a gesture that symbolises Paan Singh's anger towards khaki wearers for not helping him in need). And this transition makes this film magnificent.
Irrfan's skills bring both the versions of his character to life and he shines as both a struggling but thriving sportsperson, as well as an outlaw left in despair and pain. On the other hand, one thing that remains constant throughout his portrayal is Paan Singh's longing and lust for freedom, not from the shackles of the law, but from the shackles of life. As a newly-recruited jawaan, Paan Singh longs for a free-spirited life, where he gets his share of opportunity to serve his nation while also fulfilling his large appetite; while as the dreaded outlaw, he desires and sustains a rebellious life where he does not bow to the wrong-doers.
Irrfan's in-depth understanding of the character allows him to coherently engage with him, which eventually makes his performance extraordinary.
One of the aspects that brought power to Irrfan's portrayal of Paan Singh in the film was the local dialect he adapted so perfectly. Paan Singh hails from Morena, Madhya Pradesh, and is a man without any formal education. That required Irrfan to methodically adapt to that nature and personality. Irrfan underwent serious voice modulation to achieve that. Irrfan's perfect dialect, which most people of the Chambal area communicate in, adds more depth to his portrayal, making it more admirable. More importantly, his dialogues are further empowered and made more impactful when said in the local dialect. The arguments made during the said feud in the plot, as well as the conversations between Paan Singh, his fellow rebels, and his foes, seem more realistic due to the same. And one such conversation holds the essence of the film, and is the proof of how Irrfan embraces and uses his performing skills to immortalise the characters he plays.
After more than a year of leading the life of an outlaw, Paan Singh infiltrates Bhanwar Singh's village. He runs to catch his elder cousin, who murdered his mother in cold blood. When he apprehends him, there is a small but intriguing conversation they share. Irrfan as Paan Singh confronts Bhanwar about all the pain he has caused him and his family. Irrfan, deeply buried into the character, shouts at his brother in deep agony, saying, "Tu hamari budi maa ko bandook ki batt te maaro?"
That's Paan Singh remembering his mother being beaten to death with a rifle's stock. This dialogue and the rest of the conversation hold the key to explain Paan Singh's character as portrayed by Irrfan. For the first time, and probably the only time, Irrfan's impeccable acting allows his character to let out his emotions and curse his life. Though Paan Singh's rebellion has helped him seek revenge, now he reminisces what this life has cost him. He admits he has to run worthlessly around areas to save himself because his own kin stripped him off his ground and his passion without remorse. Most importantly, the conversation reveals how Paan Singh seeks answers for his life's turn, not just revenge for what was done to him. Unfortunately, Bhanwar is killed before Paan Singh can force out anything from him, giving him his revenge, but leaving his agony intact.
The sequence is one of the most powerful monologues ever delivered. Irrfan's crying voice, his sore throat and the anger in his eyes just create wonders onscreen. That is the moment when the viewer empathises with him. We know that violence is unbearable in any form, regardless of the events that sprouted it. But Irrfan makes viewers question their views on Paan Singh Tomar; was he right or not to take up arms? Irrfan Khan makes his character alive at that very moment, as we as the audience are left baffled, along with a quarter of the film still to unravel.
For Paan Singh Tomar, Irrfan was awarded the National Award for Best Actor. I personally was shocked when the film was left out of the Oscars race in the Best Foreign Language Film category. But Irrfan proved to everyone how charismatic and admirable he can make a film. To date, and for the years to come, Paan Singh Tomar remains and will remain, a cult classic. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Irrfan Khan as Paan Singh Tomar changed the course of film-making in India and laid the foundation for character actors to show their talent in more prominent, diverse, and leading roles.
May Irrfan Khan rest in peace. He is dearly missed.