In India of the 1950s, sports was amusement. Leisure, at best. Sports infrastructure ought to have been at the bottom of the Jawaharlal Nehru government’s priorities. When Milkha Singh won the gold medal at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, the prime minister rang him up, and taking the Punjabi athlete’s whimsical wish seriously, declared a national holiday honouring the win. In the 1960 Rome Olympics, the lanky, turbaned athlete missed the top three honours. But he was fourth in the world, an irrefutable achievement at the time. It’s unlikely that Rome had ever seen a turbaned Sikh before.
How did Milkha Singh get there? Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s biopic on Milkha Singh opens with the Olympic moment, and the end of this opening sequence, or rather its climax, is a giveaway to the rest of the film, to how Mehra and his writer Prasoon Joshi assay their subject’s life. The Olympic performance is not a feat. There is, instead, a justification of Milkha not being in the top 3, and the story tends to rest entirely on it. Milkha Singh turns at a crucial moment in the race and he sees, in a moment of disquieting flashback, a man on a horse galloping behind. Set to clangorous background music and tinted in shadowy sepia, this hint of a traumatic past, when fleshed to 3 hours, becomes the fiasco that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is.
It is a marathon trudge from cradle to national glory following a win in Pakistan against a Pakistani athlete, who incidentally has an aggressive coach, the film’s only villain. The long narrative rallies around the event that carries emotional charge for Milkha Singh and its details are painstakingly overemphasized. So Joshi hooks Milkha Singh’s story out of the context of Indian sports at the time and puts it under an isolating, personal microscope—an interesting approach if not taken to an extreme, clearly against the tradition of the biopic as a chronology of milestones.
Mehra has said in interviews that he presents Milkha Singh’s story just as the athlete remembers it. As a gesture it is respectful, even reverential, but in executing a film, this commitment is predictably counterproductive. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is the film equivalent of an authorized biography, which is written with the help and collaboration of the subject. A self-mitigating account, every defeat and every turn of events in the film has a sentimental, ingratiating slant.
Sports films usually have a simple, linear arc—the steady and indefatigable march of an underdog towards a celebratory moment of victory and entitlement. Milkha Singh’s story is a classic underdog story. A child of Partition, Milkha Singh’s (Farhan Akhtar) parents were killed in Multan. His sister (Divya Dutta) survived, his closest kin and a kind of mother figure all his life. He entered the Indian Army as a jawan and he first ran in a training camp because it entitled him to a daily diet of milk and eggs. Far from the elementary sports camps of the army, he went on to contest the Asian Games, the Commmonwealth Games and the Olympics.
The tempo of the film, accentuated by a very upbeat music score by Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy, soars until the last scene in which Nehru (Dalip Tahil) urges Milkha Singh—calling him, typically against the Nehru grain we are familiar with, “beta, beta”—to lead the Indian team for a sports tournament in Pakistan, as a gesture of diplomacy. Milkha Singh has the opportunity to be a hero again; he also goes on a personal reconciliatory journey to his roots.
That Mehra is accomplished in using cinematic technique and applying the film camera’s grand sweep in masterly ways has been obvious since his first feature Aks. His last, Delhi-6, was a visual feast, despite the confused storytelling. In this, he depends heavily on post-production. Slow-motion is in overabundance, used even in a shot which zooms into undulating water being carried in a bucket. Scenes of Milkha Singh on the run, and shots of his legs, seem perilously close to visuals from advertisements—seen strictly in visual terms, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a Nikefication of Milkha Singh.
Sonam Kapoor is in a small, ornamental role and Divya Dutta as the sister surviving an abusive husband and death of her family relies on histrionics—a role that Dutta, a skilled actor, is already pigeonholed in these days. Prakash Raj leaves a mark as a stern military man.
In the lead role, Farhan Akhtar comes across as a man spent. His effort for the role are evident. His Punjabi twang is perfect, befitting a man whose beginnings were in rural Punjab. The character has some moments of abandon, which Akhtar translates effectively on screen. But the role’s appeal is limited owing to the story’s unidimensionality and the material is squeezed beyond its potential—like Milkha Singh squeezing the sweat out of his vest into a bucket in the film. For Akhtar, it seems more like a physical endurance test than an actor’s multipronged challenge.
Nehru is a fleeting presence in the film, a tentative statesman and without any defining quality or charisma—more like a staple politician figure from Hindi films over a century. Dalip Tahil has no unique way of approaching the role. This was a small disappointment compared to the big one—sitting through a 3-hour film that stretched long after it made its point.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag releases in theatres on Friday.