Bhaagein Milkha, thakein thoda aap bhi!
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag
Director: Raykesh Omprakash Mehra
Actors: Farhan Akhtar, Pavan Malhotra
By Mayank Shekhar
Like that great biopic on the greatest Indian, Gandhi (1982), this film too starts with its inevitably tragic end. Milkha Singh, on whom this film is based, is obviously very much among us, alive and kicking ass surely. The awful beginning relates to his 400 metre race in the Rome Olympics, 1960, when he looked back for a moment, it seems, and lost a chance to bring home that rare medal in athletics’ top event. As is well known, Milkha came fourth, missing the bronze by the smallest fraction of a second. Malcolm Spence from South Africa beat him, American Otis Davis picked up gold. Those names you don’t hear at all, even for representational purposes, because I guess this film is after all called Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, possibly named after the immortal line “Run Forrest Run” from Forrest Gump. It is about Milkha Singh alone. And yes, he did beat the world record.
At the centre of it all of course is Farhan Akhtar, 39-year-old movie polymath, in Milkha’s long hair, beard and buck tooth, fast and fit, sweating it out on dusty and synthetic tracks, convincingly clocking the same speed that you would expect from a passionate, professional athlete. The number of establishing shots where he fills up the frame confirm that the filmmakers are as much in awe of his appearance as the audiences ought to be.
Ever since his last film as director (Don 2, 2011), Akhtar had been training for months to fit into the Flying Sikh’s spikes. His is obviously more a ripped ‘gym body’ rather than the less contoured physique of an athlete from an endurance sport. Still, this transformation should be an inspiration for his peers – just as it is for the viewers. Rarely do we see Indian actors even attempt to immerse themselves so completely into a role. Hardly are there characters that warrant such tough makeover.
Unlike Gandhi, this film doesn’t end at where it starts from. The tragedy of the beginning is only a precursor to a series of calamities that follow Milkha’s life: whether it’s the loss of his parents to Partition, poverty at an early age, waywardness during youth, his inability to find suitable love, or balance a healthy love-life with his career… If this story was linearly and simply told, in its impact or purpose, it could be a lot like Farhan Akhtar’s own Lakshya (2004), where a boy with an aimless, dysfunctional life finally finds a mission to channelise all his potential energies towards.
The movie is told through various fragments. Milkha’s early mentor (terrific Pavan Malhotra) narrates it. As we watch, Milkha re-imagines certain portions of his past himself, forming a chain of flashbacks within a flashback, making this neither, or both, a pure sports film—where an underdog, out of nowhere, climbs up the ladders of highly competitive global sports. And general human drama, where an orphaned boy, lost in a refugee camp, creates his own place in the world.
The two inter-related stories won’t help if all you wanted to know is: how or why was Milkha, despite all odds against him, the fastest Indian man ever, and no one since on an international stage has come even vaguely close. We needed to see it happen rather than be told that it did. He grew up as a knife wielding ruffian. We observe this interesting aspect of his life, he becomes an adult on a moving train, much like the boys from Slumdog Millionaire; and the significant portion is oddly done away with.
The film’s eventual goal was always known–for Milkha to become a champion runner. It does appear with its set of natural and contrived hurdles. Until then the goal post keeps shifting. As Milkha tries his best to keep a check on his own running time, you watch his film break into yet another song and head south of well over three hours on the clock.
Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar (2010), in comparison – and a comparison is inevitable, since both are bio-pics of athletes–was a sharper, better film. This is a much bigger film, far less self-contained. Somehow the stunning visuals and economies of scale don’t match the economy of moments: ten slaps, when three would do; long wailing sequence, when shorter would suffice, you know what I mean.
I guess this has something to do with the fact that this is a film about a living person. He is still the author of his own story. In fact that story is still being written. The writer (Prasoon Joshi) here can creatively under-represent, exaggerate, omit, or abridge only that much. He might feel obliged to insert very angle of the story. The film isn’t based on a book, like say Shekhar Kapur’s beyond brilliant Bandit Queen (1994).
Which is to take away nothing from the meat of the subject. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, a beautiful girl asks the rustic Sardar if he is relaxing, he says no, he is Milkha Singh. This is a joke that thanks to my dad (like other parents in this country) I’ve literally grown up with. It’s not even a joke when it comes on screen. Over time, pop-culture turns some living people into breathing adjectives, like Dara Singh, Natwarlal Lal, Michael Jackson, Bruce Lee…
Such is the legend of Milkha Singh that for years his name signified for patriotic Indians the story of their own young, under-privileged, talented and capable nation at the cusp of global recognition, yet unable to make it, because luck and circumstances weren’t always in its favour–in the same way that Mother India lost the Oscars race by one vote in 1958, or our footballers couldn’t participate in the 1950 Brazil World Cup, despite qualifying for it….
That missed bronze is part of India’s popular history. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (Rang De Basanti, 2006; Delhi 6, 2009) painstaking recreates Milkha’s little known road to Rome, walking us through the chilling horrors of Partition, and mildly entertaining us with the Punjabi gent’s earthy, confident persona. Without doubt, at least among people I know, this was the most anticipated film of the year. We were hoping for nothing short of greatness. At least I was. This is just about good. Is that a problem with expectations then? Isn’t it ever so often.