This is just the kind of movie that I missed over the years, specially while growing up. There were plenty of this biopic genre to be found in English cinema, but their settings and their characters could never bring the same familiarity or the lump to throat, which our own milieu could.
But we seemed strangely reluctant to make nuanced biopics. To make use of our rich history, geography, people, language, culture. While mainstream cinema was too simplistic and formulaic, even the so called parallel cinema often refused to explore beyond the obvious, specially for re imaging historical events or people.
So this one, was really an achievement in storytelling and movie making, and not the least because of its superbly nuanced script, which always teeters close to stereotyping, perhaps just to remind you of your own urges for easy answers, but always edges away from the brink, reminding you - this far and no further.
Paan Singh is the athlete from the army, who breaks records, represents India internationally, but finally ends up a dacoit ( or as he reminds us repeatedly baaghi ). These are historical facts. So what happened here?
You can almost feel the Bollywood formula taking over, the evil system, ( for eg kalmadi our poster boy, as if the rest of us are blameless), the evil uncle, the helpless hero, driven by his sisters rape, to pick the guns, with a classic sunny deol/dharmendra speech about canine blood drinking.
Surprise - none of this happens. Its a multi layered script, and a multi layered character, superbly enacted by Irrfan. For the athlete with no options, a coaching offer was open. For unhelpful policeman, there are other shades of grey in the trainer and the army commander. For those unanswered petitions, there was at least one which was answered. There are moments of subtle emotion, the parting ice cream, the sending of the children for toffees, unexpected and generous amount of humor. The last scene was perhaps the only slightly jarring note, in this otherwise close to perfect movie.
The closing credits and dedication, are evocative, but happily, the movie is not a one dimensional condemnation of how the system treats our athletes badly, but a many dimensional construction of a life, of its circumstances, and of its choices.
Must watch. ( A warning, the dialect and diction is very specific, and if you're not comfortable with Hindi, specially its dialects, better wait for subtitles on DVD. And find a friend with a big screen tv to watch it with! )