'Official records on Paan Singh don’t exist'

Irrfan Khan on his 10-year long wait for the film and how Paan Singh’s character has shades of his father

Irrfan Khan had to wait 10 years for ‘Paan Singh Tomar’. The actor was told about the idea by Tigmanshu Dhulia when they were working on ‘Haasil’. “Tigmanshu summerised the film in two lines and I was hooked,” says Irrfan who plays the dacoit in the film. Based on a true story, the film tells the tale of a steeplechase champion who turns into a dacoit due to circumstances. With no official records on the national athelete, it took Tigmanshu Dhulia and his team months of travelling and scouring through newspaper clippings to turn Irrfan into the once revered ‘daku’.  In a free-wheeling chat, the actor tells us why he waited for the film and how Paan Singh’s character has shades of his father.

Excerpts from the interview:
What made you wait for 10 years for this script?

It was a long wait because there were no records on the steeplechase champion. When we were shooting for ‘Haasil’, Tigmanshu Dhulia told me a two-liner story. It wasn’t a regular dacoit or an action story; it was the story of a national athlete who became a dacoit. For years, I kept on reasoning about Paan Singh’s transformation and what made him take up arms. I also see shades of my father in him.

Shades of your father? Please elaborate…

My father was the man of the jungle and loved open spaces. When I was shooting for the film, I used to be very overwhelmed while acting out a few scenes. That’s when I realized that Paan Singh was very similar to my father. The way Paan Singh dealt with the situations with dignity reminded me of him.

Paan Singh had shades of negative and positive in him. How difficult is it to strike a balance so that the pendulum doesn’t swing to one side?
Frankly, there’s no set formula to approach roles. For ‘7 Khoon Maaf’, I was apprehensive as to how to approach the role of poetry sprouting Wasiullah Khan till I found Abida Parveen. For ‘Paan Singh Tomar’, I liked his non-compromising attitude, bravery, courage and simplicity and once, I started relating to the character, everything else was easy.

There is not much is the archives about Paan Singh. How did you approach the role?

Actually, there are no records about Paan Singh Tomar. Although he was a national athlete, he wasn’t worldly wise. Today’s sportsmen know how to market themselves, Paan Singh Tomar was very naïve. It was very difficult initially to find people who knew him. We went to Milka Singh, who was his contemporary but he wasn’t interested. Slowly, we started getting clues and finally, we found a person who had fought the last battle with him. I like running but steeplechase is too technical and I had to learn it from scratch. I also had to learn Bundeli, the local dialect. The easiest part was picking up the gun as I already knew how to do it.
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What was it about the dacoit that attracted you in the first place?
The way he handled the crises was exemplary. Paan Singh was a proud and patriotic man. He wanted to go for the Indo-Pak war because he wanted to serve his country. In small villages and town, these values matter a lot. He was a national athlete but the system didn’t appreciate his contribution and rebuked him. At first, he tries to fight legitimately but he was threatened and his mother was beaten. He was a farmer and knew just two things-to hold a gun and to run. So, he did just that and wan into chambal to settle the scores.

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