Athlete-dacoit on the run is now subject of film

April 19th, 2009 - 9:24 am ICT by IANS  

By K. Datta
New Delhi, April 19 (IANS) When old followers of track and field first heard that director Timangshu Dhulia was planning to make a film on the life of Paan Singh Tomar, they asked incredulously: why Paan Singh?

There were many others of his time who had a better claim to athletic fame. The “flying Sikh” Milkha Singh and Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, both Olympic finalists in the 1960s, to mention just two.

But Paan Singh, a national steeplechase champion, was the man who left the Army - where he was in the Rajputana Rifles - and the track, and became a dacoit.

And this, after he had created the national steeplechase record in the 1958 National Games in Cuttack with a timing of nine minutes and 12.4 seconds and broke his own record in the 1964 Open Meet at the Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi with a timing of nine minutes and four seconds.

He won the gold in the India-Germany meet in 1962 in Delhi and was also the champion in an India-Pakistan meet in the early 1960s.

There appears to be a certain romance attached to the rebel and his gun that sparks a creative urge in writers and filmmakers.

Many years ago, Shekhar Kapur chose the dreaded Phoolan Devi, who later became an MP, as a subject for his film “Bandit Queen” because there was a certain creative satisfaction to be derived from the venture. It is very much the same in the case of Dhulia.

By most accounts, Seema Biswas, with her trademark headband, did a fair job of her portrayal of Phoolan Devi. But her job was not as tough as that of Irrfan Khan, who plays Paan Singh.

Once an aspiring cricketer with an unfulfilled ambition to play Ranji Trophy for Rajasthan, Irrfan, a six-footer, has the looks and the frame of a weather-beaten steeplechaser.

But he will not find it easy. Paan Singh was seen on athletic tracks before Irrfan was born. There are no celluloid records of Paan Singh’s long, loping strides and leaps over obstacles and water jumps for Irrfan to study and copy.

Athletes and coaches of Paan Singh’s time are still around, but one can only hope that the right men have been consulted. But, aware as one is of Irrfan’s undoubted talents, one hopes he will succeed in recapturing - or come as near as possible to it - the spring and style of the champion steeplechaser’s old stride. Leave it to the actor’s imagination.

According to recent reports, Irrfan has gone into intensive training. And, as any 3,000 metres steeplechaser leaping over obstacles and water jumps lap after lap of athletic tracks (there were only cinder tracks in Paan Singh’s days) will tell you, it is gruelling work.

Typically, long distance runners are lean and wiry men with famished looks but strong lungs and legs. Irrfan has never been known to be overweight; still he’ll end up losing several pounds of flesh as he sweats out to get into proper shape.

But athletics and the accompanying fame are only one important phase of Paan Singh’s life. The 1960s were tumultuous times in the history of independent India. First the Chinese aggression in 1962 and then the 1965 war against Pakistan. It was a tough time in a soldier’s life. And so it was with Paan Singh.

It was after he returned home to his village near Morena in Madhya Pradesh from war-time postings that the second phase began, the phase that led him to lead the life of a desperado. He was later shot in a police encounter.

The reasons for his feuds and violent end need careful research to separate fable from fact, and one hopes this has been done.

Paan Singh Tomar’s life is unique in equal measure for his excellence as an athlete and his exploits as a desperado who chose to live by the gun - and die by it. It is a challenging subject for the makers of the film, which has excited the interest of both film buffs and sports fans.

(K. Datta is a veteran sports journalist. He can be contacted at

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