‘No one was willing to fund my research’

Director Tigmanshu Dhulia talks about the joys and challenges of directing ‘Paan Singh Tomar’

Tigmanshu Dhulia’s ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ is easily 2012’s first surprise hit and has swiftly managed to oust every other film at the box office. Releasing only in 200 screens, it cashed in 5 crores in the opening weekend itself and has managed to pull in a net of 6 crores and counting as of Tuesday. Dhulia is obviously happy with the response that he has got for a film that had been lying in the shelf for months. He talks about the joys and challenges in directing this magnum opus story of a dacoit and a national-level athlete in a candid chat with Yahoo! India.

What was the starting point for ‘Paan Singh Tomar’?

I was assisting Shekhar Kapoor in ‘Bandit Queen’ in 1990-1991, when I first read about Paan Singh Tomar in a magazine and I had thought to myself that when I become a director, I would love to make a film on him. It was great material for a movie, given the number of ups and downs in his life. But as it turned out my first film wasn’t on him for whatever reason. And then it was an idea that lingered in the back of my mind. Each time I went to producers to pitch the idea, they asked me for a script but no one was willing to find the research. But finally, UTV agreed to sponsor my research and I could gather some information about him.

Was it a challenge to source information on Paan Singh?
Since he (Paan Singh) isn’t a Gandhi or a Subhash Chandra Bose, he’s not a known public figure and there’s very little information available on him online and offline.I had retained that magazine that had featured him but over the years I managed to lose it twice and finally had to go and dig it out of the archives of Anand Bazaar Patrika. I remembered the name of his village but when I visited the place, there were no immediate family members who resided there and the distant relatives who did, hardly offered any remarkable insights into his life. Then I got a lot of interesting insights from his friends in the army who spoke in length about his life as a soldier and his athletic achievements. Then I managed to track down this old dacoit called Mohan singh who was a part of Paan Singh’s group but even he had nothing to share with us since most of them are concerned about their own lives and are only willing to narrate their own adventures. Then finally, I met this chowkidar who informed us about the village where Paan Singh was finally shot down and once we went there, we learnt that about the fact that he had to be intoxicated before his encounter. This was a huge development and it also spoke volumes of how it was only possible to eliminate him after he was drugged. The entire research took us about four to five months.

How does one pepper a biopic with fiction and why is it required?
I had to fictionalize it because in the end of the day the film has to be entertaining. When you’re making a biopic and you begin researching on the person, you only get to learn about the person’s positive traits and that isn’t enough to craft an overall image of the person. I was aware that Paan Singh was killed, so I had my climax but there was a lot of things that I had to fictionalize. So, the ice cream sequence and the fact that he was a glutton were both added to his personality. I would say that the film is 80 percent fact and 20 percent fiction.

Is it more difficult to fictionalize a non-public entity?
You make a film on Gandhi or Bhagat Singh, you’re comforted by the idea that the audience will always perceive them in reverence. So I had to make him (Paan Singh) endearing and it’s a character-driven and not plot-driven film so a lot of effort needs to be taken to draft the character and the person.

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We’ve been told that this film was ready to be released last year, so have you made any changes to the film since?
Yes, that’s true. But we wanted to package it better to be sent out to some of the big film festivals. And then I was busy with ‘Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster’ so I didn’t mind that the film’s release was pushed to this year. In this waiting period, I have changed the background score completely but no other major changes have been made to the film.

What was your brief to Irrfan for playing this epic lead character?
When Irrfan performs, he latches on to one point about the character. In this case, I just told him that Paan Singh is a family-oriented man and that he does everything for pride. Irrfan completely absorbed this fact and everything he did reflected this underlying brief about the character.

Which was the most challenging scene in the film, from the production perspective?
The most challenging scene was when the cops attack the village. It was an action sequence in the lake and was very difficult to shoot. And while shooting this scene, Irrfan met with an accident where the ligament of his leg got torn. Initially, we thought it was just a sprain and tried to get it treated locally, since there was no medical attention available around the village. But later as there were no signs of healing, I asked Irrfan to take the time off and heal completely as he was required to run in many scenes that were yet to be closed. This also meant that we had to call off the shooting for two months and the production incurred a lot of expenses. I was also the line producer in the film and get the unit back to Mumbai and then taking them back to the location itself meant huge expenses for a film which is a movie made with a modest budget.

What according to you are some of the basic ingredients for making a successful biopic?
Firstly, you have to know something bad about the person or his goodness comes in the way of completing his personality. If he is a person who always speaks the truth just that should become a problem for him at some point. It is very important to have a conflict in the film and obviously, he should likeable too. I loved ‘Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The forgotten hero’ by Shyam Benegal among biopics. Directors give more importance to the sets and the costume and the jhummars (chandeliers) which is also important but the effort should be employed wisely.  'Period ko pakad ne ke chakkar mein log character ko bhul jaate hain'.

What are the risks in making a biopic of a person who isn’t as popular and how can you reduce the risk?
It’s a risk and has positives. When people have no one to compare Irrfan with it gives us the chance to create an image and a look for him that goes with his character. For me the idea was to show his heart and his brain and focus all our energies in that. The real Paan Singh was 6’5 but Irrfan is only 6’1 tall but how does that matter? If you’re making a film, you have to fictionalize a little bit. That said, the risk is if people don’t know about him, then we have to market him through the media to inform people about him and the test is how effectively we can do that.

Among all the movies made on dacoits, how does Paan Singh Tomar distinguish itself?
Paan Singh never did nothing for himself. He used to run for the 5000 metres race but when his coach asked him to move to steeplechase for a personal favour, he did that for him. He ran for the Bengal Engineers’ pride and he did everything he could for his family. He wasn’t an occupational daku but circumstances led him to the inglorious profession. He had some relatives who were ‘baaghis’ (kidnappers) but the area of Chambal is one where everyone ends up becoming one. If you don’t possess a gun and a hand pump, you’re not invited for weddings and don’t get enough respect from your village folk.

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