Language : Hindi | Running Time : 189 Minutes | Director : Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
When a movie is made, we always wonder if the story deserved to be told. If it is a biopic, even more so. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag had me frustrated. I am probably one of the very few who was left perplexes by why the story I was seeing on screen needed to be told. It isn’t like Milkha Singh is the only excellent track and field athlete we’ve had. If a vote was taken across the country before the movie was made, P.T Usha or Gurbachan Singh Randhawa would have been called India’s greatest track and field athletes. They were more decorated than Milkha Singh is. Milkha Singh had a photo finish at the Olympics. P.T. Usha had a photo finish as well. We have a movie on Milkha Singh. Does he deserve it? If you read his autobiography or even his wikipedia page, you’ll realise that Milkha Singh, a national hero, very well deserves a movie much like his compatriot, Paan Singh Tomar, deserves one. Paan Singh Tomar got a well made, well acted movie. Milkha Singh got a movie that doesn’t do justice either to the man he is or the athlete he was.
Milkha Singh is married to Nirmal Kaur, the former captain of the Indian women’s volleyball team. They met in 1955. They have a son Jeev Milkha Singh, one of Asia’s finest golfers, Compelling story add to that a photo finish at the Rome Olympics, 1960 where he misses the gold because he had the audacity to turn around, when leading the pack, and see where his closest competitor was and thereby finishing fourth. The Olympic miss forms the opening shot and we see a terrified Farhan Akhtar with a nightmare that has plagued him almost all his life raging in his head. This is the introduction scene.
If you think Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra would do away with the drama in the introduction scene and get down to telling a wonderful story, you’d be wrong. The film making that I appreciated in Rang De Basanti is something that seems to have been left behind after that film. In Rang De Basanti, Mehra’s film making gave new blood to ailing commercial cinema in India. Rang De Basanti wasn’t an intelligent movie but it had some extraordinary feeling in it. It could arouse a certain respect from you for being full of heart. In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra tries to bring Milkha Singh to love with some very old school film making in display. Cliches, sentiments, obtrusive songs, Farhan Akhtar training like Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky series, Rakeysh uses everything he possibly can to arouse some kind of emotion in us. He even has a tacky India – Pakistan rivalry embedded in the film, where the acting is some of the most ludicrous I’ve seen. All these are age old methods, the kind fitting in a 70s film. Just because the movie is in the time period of 1940s – 1960s doesn’t mean you have to employ film making techniques of that time as well. This is the kind of work that made the round in the 1950s in Hollywood. The ones that were made for the Academy Awards.
Rakeysh Omprakash mehra is after an epic here. Milkha Singh’s story is an epic. It is unavoidable for me to not draw a parallel between Paan Singh Tomar and Milkha Singh. What motivated these man to take up running for the country? Apart from the promise to miss out parade, of course. Paan Singh Tomar ran to fill his stomach, Milkha Singh ran for a glass of milk, which was a luxury back then. He runs, he gets into the team and we see that people who saw him run are impressed. The sequence of him getting selected is something I enjoyed watching. It was one of the very few scenes which I genuinely liked.
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra employs a non linear narrative style here. He moves back and forth between the past, where we are supposed to learn about Milkha Singh, the person and the athlete and to the present where the Indian coach Ranveer Singh (Yograj Singh), Mr. Wadhwa (K.K Raina) and Gurudev Singh (Pawan Malhotra), Milkha Singh’s coach, are travelling at the behest of orders from Jawaharlal Nehru to convince Milkha to come to New Delhi and meet the Prime Minister. The non linear narrative style would have worked had the present been any interesting. The moments in the past have incidents that then reveal parts of Milkha growing up in Pakistan, before the partition. This does sound an interesting style to employ and it would have been interesting had the film making not been something that belonged to the 50s.
In the army, once he is selected to be trained by Gurudev Singh, he faces a caricature villain in the form of Sher Singh Rana. Sher Singh Rana is your text book bully. There is no other information or character arc to him. He is bully, so he bullies Milkha Singh and doesn’t want Milkha to dream of wearing the Indian blazer, an entity that produces a moment of sentiment with a capital S, font size 72, further ahead in the movie. In a moment of sheer groan inducing moment where film making and common sense both leave the screen and good old romanticism and hero-giri moment, Milkha Singh runs with a bandaged leg and his bandages unravel. Slow motion. Cue in. Groan. A sequence that the 50s would have proudly shown. This is the kind of film making Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra proudly displays in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. This is only his second race that we witness. We don’t even know what kind of person Milkha Singh is except for a god fearing, smiling man and we are expected to stand up and applaud at a “brave” man. All it did was make me groan and the silliness employed. I can understand romanticism and I can take some cliches without batting an eyelid but such slow motion shot without a Vangelis’s score(Kindly take a look at Chariots Of Fire) playing, I’d be hard asked to accept such a scene, with the bandages unraveling themselves, symbolising Milkha Singh releasing himself. What was he holding back that he was being released as the bandages unraveled or did they symbolise something entirely different? I wouldn’t know. With every race that Milkha Singh ran in the movie, we could have understood characteristics of the man that Milkha Singh is but sadly, there is no character development happening and the races are of least interest. A Commonwealth games Gold Medal run could have been handled well, but all it gets is some screen space where it doesn’t hold much heart with me.
One of the really good pieces of film making on display is a classic old school sequence, the classic hero introduction shot, the one where a little child grows up to be a man and the hero is jumping into the screen with some song playing in the background. This happens somewhere when we are more than an hour into the movie. Even a brilliant sequence found us fetching. Did we really need such a sequence? Especially when the movie has a run time of almost 3 hours and is already feeling too long for its own good.
Milkha Singh has a love story after the Farhan Akhtar introduction shot. Milkha Singh falls in love with Biro (Sonam Kapoor). This is a love story where Farhan Akhtar earnestly delivers water to her house using boys from the locality and they fall in love. This is the kind of love where the heroine sits and talks to the hero on a railway bridge but comes to know of his profession when one of the ladies in the locality passes a snide remark. I don’t know if it was love that Biro and Milkha had for each other and if it was love, what did they talk about while spending time on the railway bridge? Once again, I was frustrated at the way this film was treating me. It was treating me like a 3 year old and I failed to see what the love story arc was supposed to show us about Milkha. Above all this is a story about Milkha Singh. Each and every episode in the movie is supposed to give us an insight into Milkha Singh but all it does here is give Farhan Akhthar to be a legendary man, a man whose legend never really sets the screen on fire. When you fail to feel anything as the hero’s parents are brutally killed or when he meets his long lost childhood friend or when he reunited with his sister, Isri (Divya Dutta), in the refugee camp, the movie is lost on you.
After the affair with Biro, we see the movie shift to Australia, where Milkha loses a race, gets involved with Stella (Rebecca Breeds). The Melbourne arc could have been used to show a great deal about the character of Milkha Singh, the desire and the drive to excel, where all that came from but again, we see very little of it. It isn’t Farhan Akhtar’s fault. He has done an earnest job but not for a moment could I bring myself to feel anything for Milkha Singh except a feeling of exasperation at such a shoddily done movie for such a great man. Had Milkha Singh not been a great man and had this movie not been a biopic, the movie would still have been a shoddily made film, considering everything I’ve had to say so far.
The training in a sports movie is something that has a lot of heart and is used to make us root for the hero. Here, we see all the hard work that Farhan Akhtar has put in to looking the part but we don’t feel that effort, at least I didn’t. Not for one moment could I connect with the effort that Milkha Singh was putting into his training. I never felt invested. When I was watching Rocky, I cheered for Stallone. I cheered when he was training. I remember feeling the moment with him, the exultation when he finishes the last bit of training and the music dies down, I felt that energy, the adrenaline pump through. With Milkha Singh, I never felt that. When he runs up the hill, I was waiting for the next scene and when scenes of such a nature can’t get you, there’s almost nothing that a movie can do to win you. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag had failed me, miserably.
Throughout the film , old school ideas of film making galore. There is hardly a time when you see the film maker who made Rang De Basanti and Delhi 6. I am not against old school film making. If old school film making can create an epic that is intelligent I am totally for it but here neither do I get to see Milkha Singh or any of the characters to invest myself in. Every other character is a caricature. The supporting cast has Divya Dutta as his sister, allowing Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra to ply his emotional dose, and Pawan Malhotra playing two very cliched characters and they do their best. Prakash Raj‘s character is silly, and he acts it in a silly manner befitting his career that has transformed from an extremely talented actor who could play the subtle role to someone who seems very interested in over acting his heart out. Sonam Kapoor is adequate for looking good on screen. She has no character traits written for her and she doesn’t have to do anything but look good when Milkha Singh follows her around. There has to be a special mention for Dalip Tahil, who plays Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. If there is an award for worst motivational speech in a film, the dialogue writers and Dalip Tahil would win it. They had me in splits in the scene where Nehru convinces Milkha Singh to take part in the Friendship Games in Pakistan. The act of three men going to convince Milkha Singh is highly underwhelming. The three men go and we see them have one of the most insipid conversations on screen. That kind of insipid conversation convinced Milkha Singh to come meet Nehru, who then is bound to try convincing him to take part in the Friendship Games in Pakistan. Such insipid conversations and characters don’t bring any sort of life to the movie but make it rather too long to endure.
The recurring nightmare sequence is overdosed with sound, tacky sound that has an overbearing nature to it, which is more plain loud than scary. As I was watching that sequence, which by the way is brilliantly shot, I was more focussed on trying to make sense of the loud sound which was more noise than music to my ears. If the intention was to make sure that the nightmare sequence was etched into our memory, then this sadly didn’t happen. It was one of the more beautifully shot sequences in the film, a rarity for me. The one time where I was moved and made to take note of was the time when Milkha, as a little kid, walks into a refugee camp and talks to a soldier. this was a scene which showed the time and place wonderfully. It is easily my favourite portion from the film.
For the large part of the film, I kept wondering when I was going to meet Milkha Singh. For the other part, I tried not to show my exasperation at such a shoddily made film. There were people who were impressed with the film. A India – Pakistan track always does that. All I had with me when the final race came up been a lack of understanding as to where did the build up to the climax go. There was no build up. If the buildup was the unfolding of the “story” of Milkha Singh and the conversation between Milkha Singh, the three emissaries from Nehru and Nehru himself, then sadly, the buildup didn’t work for me.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was largely frustrating with very little relief. It is sad to see a great story going to waste as it did in this movie. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra needs to start developing a style of film making that isn’t so clichéd that my great grandmother could spot the next scene from a mile and become the director he promised to be in Rang De Basanti. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a missed opportunity. Farhan is earnest but when Milkha Singh appears only in looks and not through the story, I can’t call it a biopic I enjoyed. I was disappointed with this movie. I can only hope that we are treated to better, more intelligent movies in the future.