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Irrfan Brings ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ to Life

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Irrfan Khan stars in “Paan Singh Tomar,” opening Mar. 2.
  • MUMBAI, India

    As is the increasing trend of late, international press gets short shrift from Hindi film PROs — ironical given the evolving size of the NRI audience for good films. We get a designated 10 minutes to chat with the different Khan — Irrfan — who prefers to eschew the ubiquitous second name. 

    The actor who has done a mix of films and TV series in India and overseas is set to release a film that he considers a benchmark in his career, “Paan Singh Tomar,” on the life of the real soldier-turned-athlete-turned-dacoit.
     
    For every detractor who feels that Irrfan is largely himself in every film, the interesting point is that one can still never imagine anyone else in any of the roles that Irrfan has done to date — which includes overseas assignments and also television serials in India and overseas. The ace performer of “Haasil,” “Maqbool,” “Billu,” “New York,” “The Namesake,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “7 Khoon Maaf” and many more films from his debut “Salaam Bombay” is clearly the same unruffled dude in real life who India-West has met up in the past.
     
    Excerpts from an interview:

    Q: Your director Tigmanshu Dhulia says that he would have scrapped “Paan Singh Tomar” if you had turned it down.
     
    A: I have never done such a role. It’s not just the dramatic part that is so fascinating but also Paan Singh’s emotional turmoil — plus warmth. Such scripts are rare. I am always looking for compelling characters and this was extraordinary.
    Dhulia’s writing is always very special: it is multi-layered, realistic but never boring. It has an engaging quality and this is our third film together after “Haasil” and “Charas —A Joint Effort.” I am now doing “Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster 2” with him. And even his smallest characters are well-etched.

    Q: Was there any homework needed on your side after the extensive research done by your director?
     
    A: Since the film was shot on location where Paan Singh lived, a coach helped out with the language and diction on location. The lingo was what I call juicy. It has an intriguing rhythm. But far more interesting was Paan Singh as a person. For example, here’s a young man who is sent on a routine errand to get some chillies from the market one morning and was never seen again for 18 months! He comes back in uniform and tells his people that he has joined the Army! There’s an intimate scene with his wife and that was a very tricky sequence for me to enact. Paan Singh was 17 or 18 then and I had to reproduce the body language and the looks! 

    Q: Ironically for an actor without whom the film would not have been made, you were unwittingly the cause of the movie’s delay. 
     
    A: (Laughs) Yes, I got hurt several times while shooting. The film seemed to be testing us — probably the story never wanted us to take it for granted! The main injury was when I tore a ligament and since we were in a remote village, it was wrongly treated and I kept working. When we came to the nearby town, we took a second opinion, investigated and saw that there was fair damage. I was advised rest for a good while!

    Q: What are the forthcoming films you are doing?
     
    A There’s a very interesting Indo-German-Dutch-French collaboration, “Qissa,” that is set in Punjab in the 1940s and is about a logger trying to rebuild his life after Partition. I am doing two international assignments — “Life Of Pi,” which is Ang Lee’s story of a zookeeper’s son who finds himself in the company of a hyena, zebra, orangutan, and a Bengal tiger after a shipwreck in the Pacific Ocean, and “The Amazing Spider-Man” in a key role as an Indian doctor.

    Q: And you are not doing any regular Hindi films? We know that you are not too fond of masala entertainers.
     
    A: No, it’s nothing like that. I just have to connect to a film and find my role enjoyable. I have so many of such films like “Knockout” and “Thank You.”
     
     
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