Paan Singh's story is happy until the medals have come in, until the soldier-athlete retires honorably. It changes color when he returns to roots in a part of India steeped for centuries in violent feuding, dacoity, and rebellion even against kings and empires. Paan Singh's life is quickly consumed by that ethos, starting with foulups by his profligate older brother, followed by Paan Singh's inability to recover what his brother has squandered to their cousins and, when neither police not comrades in the military help him straighten his affairs, and after his cousins savage his mother and son, Paan Singh turns daaku.
He goes the whole distance as a daaku, likening his new life to his days as an athlete, when turning back was never an option. He proclaims his own paraak over a megaphone everywhere he arrives, calling himself dasyuraj, king daaku. Which means everything a daaku is: killer, kidnapper, extortionist, and a fugitive, this one with ten-thousand rupees for his dead or living head. A sum that amuses Paan Singh and his 28-member gang: only ten thousand for the Dasyuraj?
But, perhaps, as the movie asserts, Paan Singh's nobler values never left him. He is Robin Hood, stuffing money into the pockets of village headmen after they've fed his gang, into the pocket of the small-time journalist who does his fateful interview—an interview that makes the state resolute against him. He is faithful to his wife; and a loving father. He doesn't himself kill his arch tormentor: a gang member shoots him as Paan Singh vacillates, struggles to work himself up to finish his cousin.
Spoiler: The movie doesn't make much of police officer Chauhan who caught up with Paan Singh and finished his story under flare-lights in the night. Chauhan worked painstakingly to locate the village where Paan Singh sometimes halted and trapped him there. End of Spoiler His is an act of heroism too, arriving first as he did only six-men strong. For officer Chauhan, Paan Singh was only a daaku, a killer, and for the policeman in him, a daaku must go. Chauhan lives today, an old man awaiting a natural ending.
You come away liking Paan Singh very much. You cannot help it, for his character is performed by Irrfan Khan, who never disappoints, and for director Dhulia, Paan Singh is a pure soul that turned sour solely because of the state.