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Book excerpt: How Irrfan Khan became Paan Singh Tomar


A new book, Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star, examines the storied, versatile career of the National School of Drama graduate who went on to become an international star. In this excerpt, author Aseem Chhabra details how Khan approached his award-winning role in Tigmanshu Dhulia's Paan Singh Tomar (2012).

Aseem Chhabra

When Irrfan Khan’s friend Tigmanshu Dhulia was assisting Shekhar Kapur on Bandit Queen (1994), he came across an article on dacoit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi in the weekly magazine, Sunday, published by Anandabazar Patrika. It was a cover story, and inside, there was a reference to another dacoit, Paan Singh Tomar, who started his life as an Indian Army soldier. He was a seven-time national steeplechase champion, representing India in the Asian Games, but later, because of a family land dispute, he was forced to take up arms and become a notorious dacoit in the Chambal Valley.

Tishu knew at that time that one day, after he would become a director, he would make a film based on Paan Singh Tomar’s life. He told Irrfan he would cast him in the lead role.

Years later, during the shoot of the film in Roorkee, Irrfan would tell Time magazine that he was drawn to the story of Paan Singh Tomar because it follows the hero once he has been forgotten. ‘It talks about our system,’ he says. ‘It’s a sign for any nation, any society—how much they are prepared to care for a talent.’

The film Paan Singh Tomar took a long time to make. For one thing, Tishu realized that producers in India were not willing to invest in a full exploration of the story. ‘This is not a story about Gandhi or Bhagat Singh where there is so much material out there,’ he says. ‘There isn’t much written on Paan Singh Tomar and I would have to travel and research the subject. For that I needed some money, but no one was ready to support me.’

Eventually, the production house UTV stepped in and the film was released in March 2012, nearly 20 years after the first time Tigmanshu Dhulia had planned to make it. But the making of the film was overwrought with a series of problems. For one, the actual production started in 2009 when the global recession had set in. A healthy budget of the film that required period details including a recreation of a stadium in Tokyo was cut into half. Everyone took a 50 per cent pay cut, and that included Irrfan Khan who, by then, was on the cusp of becoming a global star. But he accepted the situation, since Paan Singh Tomar was a dream project for him and his friend Tigmanshu Dhulia.

Irrfan modelled the Paan Singh character after his father. ‘There are some roles which need models in front of you,’ he told Anupam Kher. ‘I couldn’t find anybody. But I had these images of him [his father]. That really helped me. The way he walked, carried himself, that inspired me.’

‘In a way Paan Singh Tomar was my tribute to my father,’ he added.

Irrfan was 45 years old when the film was released and he did all the scenes of the races and steeplechase events himself. Tishu was ready to use a body double, yet Irrfan insisted on performing in all the scenes himself. ‘Steeplechase was a very challenging event for Irrfan,’ Tishu says. ‘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.’

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,’ Tishu says. ‘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. He is wearing the army fatigues with heavy shoes. And unfortunately Irrfan had torn the ligament two days before that shoot. ‘We actually didn’t know what a ligament is,’ Tishu adds. ‘We thought it was a sprain.’

Khan is mesmerizing in the film—an innocent, naïve, charming athlete, a man with a clean heart, who later becomes an angry, menacing outlaw. The camera loves him and it is impossible to look away from the screen when the focus is on him.

There are many moments in Paan Singh Tomar, or, for that matter, in some of his other films, where Irrfan gives a side glance, a smile that lights up the entire screen. And the camera captures his charming smile. Tishu says that he never asks Irrfan to give a smile like that. But Irrfan knows he looks good when he gives the smile and so he improvises in many of his films.

‘My approach with Irrfan is different, because we are close friends and we know each other rather well,’ he says. ‘I sometimes give him a reference of a life experience and he immediately understands. I can’t do this with any other actor. Many of our actors are not well educated, but Irrfan—if you give him reference about life or a play—he gets it. He’s a very observant actor.’

Paan Singh Tomar won many awards, including two National Film Awards—the Golden Lotus for the Best Feature Film (Tigmanshu Dhulia and Ronnie Screwvala) and the Silver Lotus for Best Actor (Irrfan Khan). So far that is the only time Irrfan has received a National Film Award.

Excerpted from Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star by Aseem Chhabra with permission from Rupa Publications. Click here to buy the book.