[dropcap]A[/dropcap] film that tells the tale of the long-forgotten national gold medal-winning athlete, 
Paan Singh Tomar, who was compelled to take up arms and become a bandit for survival. It is a simple story of a simple man, led by life’s unfairness and determined to take things in his own hands. Paan Singh Tomar is a work of passion. The roots of which can be traced to Tigmanshu Dhulia’s association with the movie ‘Bandit Queen’. It was during the making of that film that he chanced upon the story of Paan Singh Tomar and had since spent years researching the topic and writing the script. It was this script, which was given to the actor Irrfan Khan and through him to cinematographer Aseem Mishra.

Aseem quite vividly describes the first time he heard about the film and how he came to be the cinematographer for it. He elaborates, “I had just come back from New York after shooting the film ‘New York’ and Irrfan called me and said there’s a film called Paan Singh Tomar. I hadn’t ever heard about him at the time. I had heard of Milkha Singh and other famous athletes and Phoolan Devi, Man Singh and other notorious bandits but not Paan Singh Tomar. Irrfan said there is a film, my friend is directing it, and he asked me to shoot it because of the way I shot Bhanwar (television docudrama). He really liked the look in the series. Bhanwar was how I met Irrfan as he had come to Delhi to shoot one of the episodes. So I met Tigmanshu and he gave me the script. The moment I read it I felt this was my kind of script. I liked it a lot. I liked the movie Bandit Queen- the way it was handled, the way it was shot, the consistency of the film/cinematography. Not that it influences or impacts my work, but I connected to the landscape- it’s pretty wild. You need to shoot that kind of landscape on Panavision because that’s how it makes you feel. It has lots of details, textures that, to me, are very important. In fact I didn’t even go for recce because there was no time, I saw some pictures and gave them basic requirements and started shooting.”

The look of the film was quite clear in the cinematographer’s head. He explains that, “There are three sections in the film. The first features Paan Singh as an athlete, the second, Paan Singh is in the army – he was a subedar major – and the third, he becomes a dacoit In Chambal. All three sections are shot in a different way. The army section is shot in straightforward frames. Everything is very stiff- your edges, lines. Everything is eye-level, nothing dramatic.

“The shots in Chambal are very fluid in nature, very robust, the field is wider and up close.” The Chambal River that cuts through the ravines, which have served as hide outs for bandits for centuries, is where the third section of the film was shot. Aseem states that, “Shooting in Chambal isn’t easy because of the ravines and the landscape-a tough territory to shoot unless you are shooting a documentary. When you go with actors and a crew you can end up in a disaster if there is no preparation. But that didn’t happen in our case. We finished the film in 40 days.”

DSC_6287 The lighting used for the film was also quite inspired says the cinematographer, “the film has essentially two toned lighting, one is the tone we used in the ravines which is more towards warm because of the landscape- sand and quality of soil. There are barely any bushes or greenery. There was a section while we were shooting wherein it wasn’t raining but still there was some greenery there, and we avoided that patch just because we didn’t want any green in the look. In contrast, the army and sports sections were shot with a bit of green in it because in India, the army is associated largely with the color green. But the tones are very subtle. They are not forcefully warm. When you go to these places, your skin gets tanned and you naturally get a warmer skin tone. So I just accentuated the tone to one point or two points. It looks very earthy.”

Talking about the kind of lights used while shooting, Aseem elucidates that he “wanted it to look very harshly lit. The Chambal scenes were shot with top light and a skimmer fill or a fill coming from the ground. I didn’t use any [artificial] light because there was no scope of taking any generator there so it was like shooting a documentary film.” He says, “I was quite aware of the natural light that fell on the characters. Most of the movie is shot in daylight. I used natural light and a 500-watt bulb. In Chambal, at night, I used a bulb. In the villages you won’t see many fluorescent lights, just normal bulbs. This is why the film has inherently warmer tones.”

The film tries to recreate the original locations where the story took place. Shot in various locales in and around Dholpur and the Indian army cantonment in Roorkee where the real Paan Singh Tomar is believed to have been posted. Aseem pronounces that, “Most locations are real locations. Nothing was constructed. The film opens with an interview of Paan Singh and that was the only shot that was taken in a Studio (Chandivali Studios, Mumbai) on a terrace. So nothing was actually constructed. We tried shooting that scene in Dholpur, which is 50 km from Agra at the border of UP, Rajasthan and MP where the Chambal ravines begin. We tried to shoot it twice there but something was wrong with that place because both times there was some kind of disruption such as a storm or the bulb broke and we had to abandon shooting. We ended up filming in Bombay.”

When asked about lenses he replies, “I think a lot about lenses. I let it happen naturally. Because we were shooting in such a wide landscape you can’t go below a 32/50mm. For a rare, high emotion shot I would go for a telephoto lens otherwise I stick to 24/14mm or 24/32mm. I think I was very sure about the lenses in the film; I was not going above 50mm except maybe just once or twice. I was sure about wanting it to look very harsh except during a few sensitive moments. Otherwise what we finally see is a hard light. We shot this film on Super16 because of budget constraints. We used a zoom lens for some sequences.”DSC_5740

Aseem is full of praise when it comes to the actors, director and production unit. He talks of the main character actors saying, “they are a different kind of actor who come from theatre so there they are trained to catch the light in a certain way to express their feelings and emotions. Irrfan (Khan) and Mahie (Gill) are very good with taking instructions from DPs.” Of the director of the film, Tigmanshu Dhulia, he says, “We never talk about the film we are shooting. We have a great sync. It’s a largely non-verbal language that’s spoken between us. We do have conversations like ‘whether it should look like this or that’, it’s not very serious.”

Aseem describes the film unit as “a full-fledged unit. We were not staying in 5 star hotels as there weren’t any there (laughs) but production value wise it was quite good except for the shooting conditions which were tough because of the climate. Storms in the evening would push us back half a day and we would have to resume mid-scene, other than that it was a clean and good setup. Most of the assistants in the film were ex-dacoits from the various gangs. They were a great help. They used to show us good locations and when we used to ask them about lighting and where the sun is going to be, they didn’t need a compass to know everything.  So that was a big advantage for us and made things very simple.”

The film’s location provided the only major challenge that the cinematographer faced during the shooting other than the fact that he “had to be very honest with the characters. So I consciously didn’t choose to go below eye-level because it was a true reflection of how Paan Singh was. I don’t think there are any scenes that have been written in a filmy way. It’s written more cinematic. The expressions are more ‘cinema’. The whole idea was not to go dramatic – angle and lighting wise. He was a very simple man. So the whole film is very simple. There is nothing complicated or complex. It is as simple as the character. If he wants to hit somebody he just hits them.”

DSC_5840Shooting in real locations proved to be quite exciting for the crew as they had some real life encounters with modern bandits. Most of the local leadership consists of the same dacoits and permission was to be taken before shooting at the various locations. In one instance when permission was not granted, a local bandit fired a round of shots in the air while filming. Many a time, while shooting scenes involving gunshots, the crew would be surprised to hear gunshots in reply to their own.

It was a single camera shoot, everything was handheld, no Steadicam. There were very few hi-speed shots mostly during the steeplechase scene. One of the moments in the film that I really love was in the end when the cops surround Paan Singh. There is a huge canal that he tries to jump but gets stopped by a bullet moments before landing. It is very dramatic. His running to escape death and his running to win medals are of the same kind.”

Aseem is vocal about his feelings for the film as he proclaims that, “This is one of my most passionate works, because I was coming from New York. So it was a huge contrast for me, which was exciting. I had shot reflections and clean images in New York whereas here I was going to shoot rough images and rough lines.”

He seems to have enjoyed the experience a lot and admires what the film stands for. It is not just a movie about bandits; it is a film about how a man is driven to become a bandit. In hindsight he laments that if he could change one thing about the movie he wishes that it were shot on 35mm, “as you would have got some more information and detail in the canvas. But for me ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ and ‘Sahib Biwi aur Gangster’ are my most passionate works.”

DI (Digital Intermediate) – Prime focus by Rohan Desai

Stock – A mix of Fuji and Kodak – Fuji for Army sections and Kodak for ravine area for inherent warmth.


As told to Aprajita Sarkar