Milkha Singh, India’s most famous track and field athlete, ran for Rome Olympics in 1960 and missed winning a medal. Despite many attempts before and after that year, Indian athletes have never come closer to an Olympic medal in running, notwithstanding the various successes in other sports. To cover an eventful life of Milkha Singh and to inject inspire a young nation to pay attention to this sport, pretty much the surefire idea running in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra‘s head to make this film. Milkha Singh himself resonated this notion in an interview when the film was announced. Constantly magnetized by themes of nationalism, Mehra has proved his mettle with the flawless Rang De Basanti and the well-intention-ed Delhi 6. Not nearly running half as fast as its central character, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is an enduring viscous tale of a sportsman that clocks in at 3 hours 10 minutes. But is it worth all the patience?
Having read and heard many harsh views and juvenile bashing of the film, I am happy to tie in a thread of hope by saying that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is actually a competently made film, albeit not flawless. I watched the film twice this weekend, and there must be something about it that lured me back to the theaters, or maybe I am just cine-dumb. Oh well, I am plain befuddled by the disconcerting realization that a lot of cinephiles have renounced the film due to the hangovers of their own expectations on what they would have wanted the film to be. Sigh! Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is made like a biopic, in its true sense, with anecdotal accounts of bullet points from Milkha’s life, and we have to suspend our disbelief in the fictionalizing of some accounts, considering Milkha Singh himself supported the script. In this dramatic re-enactment of his life, screenwriters Prasoon Joshi and Mehra could not have really helped it if Milkha’s life actually played out like a cliched emotional trope and the situations are fairly ill-used in Bollywood. What could have been helped is heaping on an effort to become a compulsive tear jerker and the loud theatrical tone of the narrative. But I guess that’s the reason it is working with the mainstream audience.
Keeping in mind just the objective of the film, that is, to capture the first 20 something years of the life of an acclaimed athlete, the film serves its purpose to concoct a heart-wrenching tale. Despite the lack of an Olympic medal, Milkha Singh is hailed because of the circumstances under which he won 77 out of the 80 races he ran, as well as the lack of infrastructure and resources in independent post-colonial India, in which he grew up. There are constant leitmotif-laden references via repetitive metaphor to Milkha’s past, beginning from the first scene itself where he loses at the Rome Olympics. This scene plays out Milkha running to save his life from a horseman carrying a sword, which triggers every time he is told to ‘bhaag’ from a horrifying situation. Mehra reveals more of this dreaded flashback incident, bit by bit, jutting in and out of flashback, as the story reaches its conclusion to discover the troubled memories of Pakistan in Milkha’s head. The film is pivoted around this memory, and maybe a little more focus on the shame that ensued after Olympics loss as well as his fight to resurrection would have helped the purpose better and lent a way better insight into Milkha’s psyche towards the end. A simple reconciliation with the horrors of the past and soapy breakdown doesn’t reason as well and the resurrection looks sudden and the inspiration behind the persona a tad bit underwhelming.
The flashback sequences, and the flashbacks within flashbacks, are juxtaposed efficiently, taking simple cues from the present on goings and organically cutting into Milkha’s life many years ago, Mehra himself taking a leaf out of his earlier venture, Rang De Basanti. However, Mehra falters in rendering an old-fashioned treatment to the film, the loud dramatic escalations, the beaten-to-death background cues and the constant emotional tugging. What he does succeed in creating the buildup of Milkha’s resilience – the kid running on hot sand when his friends advise him not to, the brilliantly shot race before intermission in which the camera only focuses on his injured feet and there is no score, or the sprawling training sequences in Ladakh. Taking his time to setup the story, Mehra does overstay his welcome by a few extra minutes I believe but it does not get jarring due to its highly charged after-effect, one that will definitely bring a wave to pursue athletic excellence to your head.
Binod Pradhan uses the now much famous techniques of sepia soaked flashback screens and murky nightmare and killing scenes in his cinematography. Produced by Viacom 18 Motion Pictures and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra Pictures, BMB wears its cost in its high production values,but the editing by P.S. Bharathi could have been crisper. National Award winning costume designer Dolly Ahluwali does very well to make Farhan look like Milkha Singh. But it is the Music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy that scores an ace among-st all technical departments. Loaded with buckets of fervor and dosages of amphetamine to stir you up. All songs come out well and seamlessly woven into the narrative, save for one romantic number with Sonam Kapoor in the second half.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a film that belongs to Farhan Akhtar, more than even Rakeysh Mehra. Despite being a full-time director himself, Akhtar immerses himself in Milkha’s character and obliterates the bar by wide margins to deliver a rare performance that will stay in your head for long. Apart from working assiduously on his chiseled physique, he displays the wide paradigm of Milkha’s emotions with a fresh grasp. Take a bow, Farhan! Matching up to him neck to neck is the veteran Pavan Malhotra, who speaks Punjabi like a charming spitfire. Effective and admirable, Malhotra is the standout act of the film. Prakash Raj does well in a small role as a cantankerous army officer, while Art Malik is impressive as Milkha’s dad. Divya Dutta, a highly underrated actress, plays Milkha’s sister, and despite being waxy and soapy, will most positively tear you up. Sonam Kapoor lands an extended cameo in BMB and does well to not ruin it. Rebecca Breeds is largely pretty in another cameo, while Meesha Shafi does not get much scope. Dalip Tahil does the worst impression of Nehru while Yograj Singh is melodramatic, much like the predominant tone of the film.
On the whole, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is not a Chak De India, largely because Mehra did not handle it like a Shimit Amin would. Yet, it has all the ingredients of an inspiring biopic with this year’s strongest central performance till date. A lot of masala and a lot of drama will make BMB work well with the audiences despite its overlong runtime. It is a human saga from adversity to success and the varied experiences of an athlete and should be viewed in that anecdotal perspective. It may not be a bad idea to be manipulated by this one, as it worked in both the viewings for me. Give it a shot, you may be inspired to do something bigger in this trade-off. Here is an extra half-star for the phenomenal lead effort!
Rating – 3.5/5