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Paan Singh Tomar, the Nation and the Sportsperson

The citizens of any country need various emblems to help imagine themselves as a nation and sport has naturally been an important one. In this essay constructed around the fi lm Paan Singh Tomar the author refl ects upon sports nationalism in India and the State's role in fostering the nation, especially with the State weakening in past two decades. The essay also examines the transformation of Indian cricket and the creation of superstars - India became a cricketing power with the World Cup triumph of 1983 but it was only with the economic liberalisation of the P V Narasimha Rao era that cricket gradually became the nation's obsession.



Paan Singh Tomar, the Nation and the Sportsperson

M K Raghavendra


is not accustomed (he takes his shoes off in the middle of the race, runs barefoot but still accredits himself honourably) he attains the highpoint of his career by winning the steeplechase in an international military athletic meet. After his retirement Paan Singh is offered the job

The citizens of any country need various emblems to help imagine themselves as a nation and sport has naturally been an important one. In this essay constructed around the fi lm Paan Singh Tomar the author refl ects upon sports nationalism in India and the State’s role in fostering the nation, especially with the State weakening in past two decades. The essay also examines the transformation of Indian cricket and the creation of superstars – India became a cricketing power with the World Cup triumph of 1983 but it was only with the economic liberalisation of the P V Narasimha Rao era that cricket gradually became the nation’s obsession.

M K Raghavendra ( is a film scholar and critic based in Bangalore.

The Film

new biopic of an actual athleteturned-dacoit, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar has been making waves and, considering that the film is subdued and tries hard to be authentic, its success at the box offi ce bodes well for Indian cinema as a global cultural artefact. This, however, is not an appreciation of the film but a freewheeling enquiry into what the sportsperson has come to mean to the nation today with the film serving only as a p ivot for its arguments – since the success of the film suggests widespread a cceptance of its viewpoint.

Paan Singh Tomar was a jawan in the army who held the national record in the steeplechase for over a decade. Subedar Tomar hailed from the Chambal valley and when his conflict with a relative could not be resolved and he found the police more sympathetic to his foe, he (like many others) turned dacoit and b egan to rob and kidnap for ransom in the Chambal belt. After he had brutally gunned down nine people of a village for being police informers, the law turned on him with a vengeance and Tomar was killed in an encounter in 1981.

The film more or less sticks to this story except that it is caught between being authentic and carrying a message that is pertinent to the times. In the fi lm, Paan Singh (Irfan Khan) becomes an athlete because athletes in the military are entitled to better rations. After being unsuccessful in the Tokyo Asian Games because he wears spiked shoes to which he

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of a coach but back home, his cousin has usurped his land and the law is unsympathetic. The collector asks those involved to “resolve their disputes amicably” but ignores Tomar’s plea to confi scate his adversary’s licensed guns. When the police inspector is similarly unhelpful – despite evidence of Paan Singh’s doings as a national athlete and hero – and his nephew and mother are assaulted, he turns dacoit (or “rebel” as he would have it) and begins kidnapping rich men and merchants for ransom.

The story is related in a fl ashback m otivated by a journalist interviewing Paan Singh and, as implied, this means that the film is uncritical in its acceptance of the protagonist’s account of the events of his own life. The film is perhaps weakest when it endorses Paan Singh’s killing of nine persons – it echoes his notion that informers are not “innocent” and therefore merit liquidation. A question here is whether it can hold an informer morally guilty without also admitting its inherent antipathy towards the State. More importantly, is it a patriotic given that anyone who is for the nation should also be against the state and if so, how did it become thus?

The State and the Nation

As may be gathered from this brief description of the fi lm’s approach, Paan Singh Tomar traverses familiar ground by concurrently eulogising the nation in the abstract and castigating the state. The emblem of the nation is partly the military – which infuses Paan Singh with love for his country – while the state is, by and large,

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represented by civilian authority in the shape of the corrupt police. This disrespect for the state, it must be explained, is a contemporary attitude and does not pertain to Paan Singh’s times because much of the film is set in the 1970s when Hindi cinema still showed respect for the Indian state. The key motif in Ganga Jumna (1961) in which the older brother turns dacoit to be eventually gunned down by his p oliceman younger brother is, in fact, repeated in Deewar (1975) when the smuggler older brother is similarly killed by his sibling and Shakti (1982) in which it is the policeman father who shoots down his erring son. Since then, however, cinema is increasingly regarding the state as unworthy of respect.

The underlying implication in the films of the 1970s1 was that the state was the custodian of the nation and a cted on its behalf but this sense perhaps transformed radically after 1991-92. The economic liberalisation initiated by P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh was intended as a way of cutting red tape and freeing the economy but, judging from Hindi cinema’s changing perceptions, this also weakened the state considerably – perhaps because regulation and enforcement were confused with each other. It is one thing to deregulate but another, entirely, to be lax in enforcing the laws that exist. In fi lms like Kaminey (2009) policemen act on their own behalf as if this was the most natural thing.2 There may be an element of hyperbole in this portrayal but the weakening of the state has led to social Darwinism on an appreciable scale – a competitive environment in which anything goes. When the state d eregulated without strengthening itself, free enterprise also became strong enough to weaken the state. Corruption is perhaps understandable as the machinery of the state subverted to serve free enterprise. Even the criminalisation of politics may owe to this because crime can be equated with free-for-all enterprise and this signals the social acceptance of “entrepreneurs” of this kind.

Deregulation without enforcement, it can be argued, strengthened the private sector inordinately, so much so that when a measure like the Lokpal Bill is

Economic & Political Weekly

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tabled, corporate culpability is excluded. The mainstream media – which is now corporatised – is naturally acquiescent perhaps because its primary concerns pertain to its revenues (from advertising) which might be jeopardised if it attended to its traditional moral/watchdog role.3 But the state (with laissez-faire economists like Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia at the helm) is so afflicted by its own unworthiness that each time its control shows signs of weakening in any area, it responds by r emoving long-standing structures instead of strengthening them – e g, proposing cash subsidies to the poor instead of free education and health and gradually dismantling even the public distribution system for foodgrains. The progressive withdrawal of the state can only suggest weakness to the public.

It is perhaps because the state has been systematically weakened by elected governments in this way that Hindi cinema has got around to the view (as in Paan Singh Tomar) that every Indian r elates directly to the nation – instead of through the state. In Paan Singh’s discarding of his spiked shoes in the middle of the 3,000 m steeplechase is the assertion that the private citizen can do what he will for his country without assistance from the state, which is suspect.

Sport and the Nation

Paan Singh Tomar is made partly as a v ehicle for patriotic sentiments and it shrewdly enlists two reliable institutions which have served mainstream Hindi cinema in this way – the military and I ndian sport. My sense is that unlike the state, with which citizens interact on a daily basis, these are institutions whose inner workings remain opaque and this may account for why they are respected. While the military has been a seat of patriotism ever since the Sino-Indian war, the sports film had its advent only with Lagaan (2001). Iqbal (2005) and Chak De India (2007) followed. While Lagaan and Iqbal are about cricket, Chak De India is about women’s hockey but a shrewd guess is that it was provoked by India’s humiliating failure in the 2007 Cricket World Cup when the team did not even get into the last eight. Directly

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or indirectly, therefore, cricket appears to bear much of the weight of the country’s patriotic fervour in sport and its unique position needs to be understood.

Although always popular, cricket did not become the “national sport” even with India’s Prudential World Cup triumph in 1983. The burden of sports patriotism was, rather, shared more equitably with the other sports. Prakash Padukone’s All England Badminton triumph in 1980 and Vijay Amrithraj’s successes in international tennis – when he was briefly considered alongside Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors – mattered at least as much Indian cricket’s successes overseas. But cricket has a characteristic not shared by other team sports which is its capacity to promote individual careers in a way that others do not. In most team games, the team/country must win for the individual sportsman to be considered successful. A footballer cannot have a successful career if he is not frequently on the winning side. Cricket is perhaps a team game emblematic of private enterprise in that achievements at the individual level often have little or no bearing on the outcome of a game. A cricketer sets a new personal world record even as his team sinks to a new low just as a businessman can become the richest man in the world when his country is failing on every development indicator. This means that among all the team games popular in India, cricket has the greatest propensity to create stars without the team’s progress paralleling that of the stars.

Cricket’s true rise perhaps also began in India in 1991-92 when television was opened out to the private sector in a big way. Television became the site of advertising in which stars play a big part and since cricket was already producing stars, it may be conjectured that television advertising found cricket useful. The rise of cricketers as national icons begins at around the same time. When stars endorse brands or products, it may be expected that the brand or product has invested heavily in them and it would hurt it for the star to lose stature. Since cricketers are associated with so many brands, it may be surmised that several interests are doing their best to


ensure that their images do not lose lustre and mythologies have been created around cricket. Cricket advertising sometimes takes extreme measures to keep “patriotism” alive and at one point the game was even being compared to war, with the ball portrayed as a hurled explosive. It would seem, therefore, that the patriotic sentiments evoked by cricket have been contributed to by mainstream media through skilful publicity.

Notwithstanding the local passion for the game Indian cricket dominates the world only financially. In the recent Asia Cup tournament which concluded in Dhaka, India did not even make it to the fi nal although an important personal landmark was achieved. It would be absurd to contest Sachin Tendulkar’s personal achievements in the game but the patriotic sentiments associated with Indian cricket’s public image are incongruous. Personal achievements in Indian cricket are often compared to those of international footballers, but a Pele or a Maradona helped their countries to dominate the game.4 If one refl ects dispassionately upon cricket today, the more marketable versions (T50 and T20) have had the effect of reducing the level of skill required and enhancing the component of chance; in order to keep it popular, the possibility of domination by a country is even being undermined. Given such a scenario, one wonders what cricket patriotism will amount to tomorrow.

Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th century was undoubtedly a landmark and it was followed by President Pratibha Patil, Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar

– the nation’s present leaders and future hopefuls – all sending congratulatory messages. While acknowledgement of the achievement was only expected, there was also a sense to be got here of national leaders trying to benefi t from the occasion. Anyone who seeks infl uence is so dependent on his/her image in the mainstream media that these functionaries of the state/government might well have wanted to be associated with Sachin Tendulkar’s singular triumph: they perhaps even consider the nation as embodied in sport rather than in the state and an appropriate sporting message might convince the enormous cricket-loving public of their patriotic credentials.

Paan Singh Tomar is too tendentious a film for it to serve as a marker for what sports patriotism meant in the 1960s. The real athlete-turned-dacoit did remarkably well on the track but this does not mean that he was patriotic: one can win races without feeling anything about the nation. While he fought the police to be eventually gunned down, there is no evidence that he despised the Indian state. Being “anti-state” is an ideological position which may not be embraced by all those who break the law. But Paan Singh Tomar does serve to tell us what patriotism implies to the vocal classes (who love cricket) today: that one must concurrently love the nation and spurn the state to be truly patriotic. Judging from their conduct even the functionaries of the state/government may have been gradually persuaded to this view after 1991-92.


This essay began as an examination of the fi lm Paan Singh Tomar but the e nquiry led to other things like sports nationalism and the role of the state in fostering the nation. Increasingly, it is being asserted, that the state needs to play no role in maintaining the nation, that private enterprise can do it just as well if not better. A factor that needs to be considered here is whether the nation should not be a more inclusive one than that which is now being fostered. An I ndian industrialist becoming the richest man in the world may be a matter of national “pride” but will the “nation” that feels this pride be as inclusive as it should be? If the nation is not an inclusive one, then one also wonders if it can survive in the long term. Will the failing state, therefore, eventually not destroy the nation?


1 Deewar is also widely regarded as working with the “mother-as-nation” cliché. For instance, see Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, The Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1995, p 394. In this film, the mother sanctions the killing of her older son by her younger son indicating that the nation is with the state in the l atter’s fight with the rebel although rebellion itself is caused by social injustice.

2 See M K Raghavendra, “Social Dystopia or Entrepreneurial Fantasy: The Signifi cance of Kaminey”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLIV, No 38, 19-25 September 2009, pp 15-17.

3 Having a corporate entity as a media enterprise has an immediate consequence which is that, being answerable to shareholders, profi t b ecomes the primary motive.

4 See Tendulkar’s 100 centuries as good as Pele’s 1,281 goals, Press Trust of India, London, 19 March 2012, http://www.hindustantimes. com/CricketSectionPage/Chunk-HT-UI-AsiaCup2012-SachinStories/Tendulkar-s-100-centuries-as-good-as-as-Pele-s-1-281-goals/Article1-827670.aspx, accessed on 22 March 2012.

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