Mon, 21 Dec 2009 13:39:17 GMT

Coming soon: Paan Singh, athlete-turned-Chambal terror

The fascinating story of the champion steeplechaser is now a film starring Irrfan Khan


Mumbai: THE final barrier in every lap of the 3,000-m steeplechase is a water jump -- a hurdle followed by a pit of water.The fascinating life of one of India's early steeplechase champions reflected this obstacle race closely -- measured strides and jolly ease for most of the journey, followed by muddy, slippery terrain in the final stretch. The story of Paan Singh Tomar, armyman, champion steeplechaser and national record holder of the late 1950s and 60s, who became a dreaded Chambal bandit before he was gunned down, has now been made into a film.

Tigmanshu Dhulia, who has earlier made social thrillers like Haasil (on student politics) and Charas (on cannabis cultivation in Himachal), said the idea of Paan Singh Tomar came to him when he first read about the athlete-turned-dacoit while researching Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen in the early `90s.

He knew instantly that it was a winning idea, and UTV funded the research to expand on the seed of the script on the runner who set the national steeplechase record in the 1958 National Games in Cuttack (9:12.4) and bettered the mark in the 1964 Open Meet at Karnail Singh Stadium, clocking 9:04. Irrfan Khan plays Tomar in the film, whose script pans three decades of the athlete-bandit's life from the 1950s to the 1980s.

"Becoming a bandit was very common in the Chambal valley -- and in that belt of UP, MP and Rajasthan, it was also considered a matter of pride. But we found out while writing this film and speaking to Paan Singh's colleagues and wife and son, that he wasn't proud of being a bandit," said Dhulia. Paan Singh was known to have said often: "Nobody knew me as a sportsperson, people recognised me only after I became a bandit."

In the posters of the movie, Irfaan Khan is shown jumping over a mucky water hurdle in a red tracksuit, with a gun slung on his back -- an image that portrays both stages of the runner's life. "What struck me was the connection of him running as an athlete and then running in the ravines. "Going over race obstacles as an athlete with the Rajputana Rifles, and then dodging the police in the Chambal Valley; running for the country and then against the country," said Dhulia.

Paan Singh's contemporaries -- some of whom have contributed to the script since very little literature exists on him -- said that only an extremely adverse turn of events could have led him to become a dacoit.

J S Saini, a former national coach who knew the runner closely before he retired, said Paan Singh's days as an athlete gave no indication of what he would become in the future. "I coached Paana, as he was called, till 1963. He was a complete gentleman -- an army athlete, a very well-behaved boy, a jovial person who always mixed with people," Saini said.

Rather tall and well built (6'1" or 6'2") for a runner, Paan did cross-country with his unit, but failed to qualify for the Asian Games in 1958 and 1962 despite being in good form. "He would stretch out his right hand and I knew from a distance he was doing all right," said Saini. "Paan Singh lifted his right hand out, on the mark of four strides before every hurdle, which told you he'd timed the jump perfectly. If the right hand didn't show, then he would miss."

Paan Singh's best time coincided with the rise of the Kenyans in the steeplechase.

"He never gave the impression that he was disappointed with his career, but when he went back to his village, life must have dealt him a wrong card," Saini said, recalling that he last met Paan Singh four decades ago, at Delhi's Janpath, shopping for Kashmiri shawls.

Running legend Milkha Singh said Paan Singh's fall from grace could not muddy their many years of camaraderie. "He was a very good sportsman. Pata nahin aise chakkar mein kaise phans gayaa. Zameen le li, jhagdey ho gaye. Circumstances forced him," Milkha said of the teammate who travelled with him to Germany, Pakistan and England, and whose funny bone was as prominent as his toned calves.

"We would compete against each other often in cross-country. I remember he'd feel very bad when I beat him, because I was more a sprinter than him and he was a mid-distance runner. But I enjoyed racing against him more than anyone in cross-country," Milkha said.

Dhulia said he believes the film will be an eye-opener for anyone interested in Indian sport. "It's sad that while roads are named after certain privileged sports stars, others are left in misery. What led an army athlete who was so passionate about his country, to pick up the gun, is a question that's still relevant," he said.

"But I met a lot of athletes while making the film -they are very positive people who joke and see the lighter side of life, though they are plodding on without any facilities or incentives."

Source: The Indian Express

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