ABU DHABI // When Tigmanshu Dhulia chanced upon a story about the athlete-turned-outlaw Paan Singh Tomar back in 1991, he vowed that one day he would tell the tale.
He was working on the film Bandit Queen with the director Shekhar Kapur when he read a brief magazine article about the man."I thought to myself: 'The day I become a director I want to do this story,'" he said. "But I only had an idea and an article and I really needed a script."
During the Abu Dhabi Film Festival yesterday, Dhulia joined cast members to talk about the film he eventually did make and attend last night's international premiere at the Emirates Palace hotel.
The film, Paan Singh Tomar, tells the story of the runner who represented India at several international sports competitions, including the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo.
He then joined the armed forces, reaching the rank of corporal during a 30-year military career before he became disillusioned with the government. In 1979, he joined an armed gang and became a dacoit, or bandit. He died during an encounter with police in 1981.
To prepare for the role, the lead actor, Irrfan Khan, worked with steeplechase coaches and learned the Hindi accent native to the Chambal Valley, the region where Tomar was raised and later took up arms. He said his objective was always to do justice to the man and his story. "Even the nation has forgotten him," Khan said. "It is his energy that has become the energy of the story. You've done justice when you choose to tell the story through cinema," he said. "We tried to take as many layers of information about his life, then mix it."
Khan is an acclaimed Indian actor who has been able to cross over to western cinema, appearing in films such as The Namesake, Slumdog Millionaire and A Mighty Heart. He has known Dhulia for years after their first encounter in 1986 during acting class at the National School of Drama in Delhi.
"We both trained as actors but he didn't want to wear so much make-up so he became a director," Khan joked.
To research the film, Dhulia sought out UTV Spotboy, a production house he knew would do Tomar's story justice. "Paan Singh Tomar is not Gandhi," he said. "There is a not a lot known about him and I needed time and money to research his story."
However, most of Tomar's fellow athletes were either dead or too elderly to give a proper interview.
"They were in such bad shape, with memory loss and such," said Dhulia. "It shows the real side of Indian sports and this film is dedicated to the unsung heroes in Indian sports." He found Tomar's fellow athlete Milkha Singh in Chandigarh, who led the way to his coach.
Over a period of seven months, Dhulia interviewed both in addition to Tomar's wife and son. Gradually those who had been close to him began to fill in gaps in his story.
"What we realised is that his choice to go from being a lawmaker to a lawbreaker was a gradual, slow process," he said. "Even though he was an athlete with the armed forces, he picked up the gun."
Unlike most Bollywood movies, which are shot in studios, the filming was done almost entirely on location in the forests, valleys and army barracks where Tomar once lived and roamed.
Shooting in the Chambal Valley, a fertile region that spans the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, was fraught as it still remains the haunt of bands of robbers.
To keep things safe, Dhulia hired 2,000 former bandits - some of them former comrades of Tomar - to protect the cast and crew.
"There, for someone to become a dacoit is not seen as a bad thing," Dhulia said. "They see themselves as rebels, not dacoits. The area we were shooting in, even the police cannot do anything there. These men knew everyone who came to watch us shoot the film."
The actress Mahie Gill, who plays Tomar's wife, said the circumstances of the shooting did not trouble her. "By heart, I am a village girl in spite of my urban upbringing," she said.