July 12, 2013
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Farhan Akhtar, Divya Dutta, Sonam Kapoor, Rebecca Breeds, Yograj Singh, Pavan Malhotra, Prakash Raj, Art Malik, Meesha Shafi, Jabtej Singh
Hindi with some Punjabi
Scriptwriter Prasoon Joshi’s most significant decision for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is that he does not centre the story around Milkha Singh’s failure to win a 400m medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Too much of the national discourse on this legendary athlete is about that one miss, though he is a multiple gold medallist on other global platforms. Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Prasoon celebrate all these achievements but choose to make the child Milkha’s Partition wounds the fulcrum of their film.
This coupled with Farhan Akhtar’s stellar performance makes Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (BMB) a moving and entertaining biopic. What robs it of greatness though is its too-transparent ambition to be an epic, leading to superfluous scenes of visual magnificence (such as a looong sequence of Milkha training after the 1956 Melbourne Olympics surrounded by stunning scenery beneath clear blue skies) and repeated slow mo shots of Milkha’s Partition memories of a phantom horse rider which needlessly melodramatise genuinely heart-wrenching experiences that were intrinsically dramatic anyway. Result: we are intermittently distracted from the heart of the matter at hand.
BMB begins with the Rome 1960 disappointment followed by Milkha’s refusal to participate in the Indo-Pak Friendship Games in Pakistan. Why does he refuse? The answer unfolds as we are taken through his happy childhood in Multan, the tragedy of 1947, an early entry into a world of crime, the impish teenager’s popularity in his village, the quest for respectability when love strikes, the gravitation towards athletics while in the Army, the gruelling training and international glory. It is not a linear narrative though. Most of Milkha’s story is recounted by his first coach Gurudev Singh to a bureaucrat as they travel by train from Delhi to Chandigarh to meet the star. Unnecessary device? Yes. Especially because it feels kind of silly to witness flying dupattas, stolen glances and songs when Milkha romances his first love Biro, since this comes as part of the coach’s flashback! Besides, within Gurudev’s flashback is Milkha’s own flashback to his childhood which gets briefly confusing.
Yet there is much else to recommend in the screenplay. There is no glossing over the brutality inflicted on innocents on that side of the border, but Prasoon skillfully steers clear of rabble-rousing. The other thing of beauty is the writer’s attitude towards women. BMB makes it a point NOT to trivialise a woman simply because she’s white-skinned and sexually interested. Elsewhere, there is a passing yet very compelling lament about the manner in which rural Indian girls are forced into marriages with partners not of their choice. And when Milkha rejects a woman’s open advances, he does so with delicacy. No speeches here, just fleeting actions worth noticing.
From the film’s three romantic interludes, the sweet-faced Australian actress Rebecca Breeds merits a mention for her natural ease before the camera. To be fair though, hers is also the only well-fleshed-out character of the three. Sonam Kapoor as the pretty Punjabi girl Biro is required to look innocent and be playful, which she does effectively. Pakistani actress Meesha Shafi as Milkha’s fellow athlete Perizaad, however, wears the same facial expression throughout her screen time. Divya Dutta delivers a lovely performance as Milkha’s elder sister. In her story we also get that rare reference to marital rape from mainstream Bollywood.
The dominant force in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, however, is Farhan Akhtar. This is not a performance confined to an actor’s dramatic physical transformation, though that too is amazing, and Farhan has been blessed with cinematographer Binod Pradhan who captures the landscape of his body with obvious delight. But beyond that, it’s evident that the star has invested every cell of his being, every bulging muscle, every pulsating vein in this one character. This is an actor living a part.
Playing a soldier in BMB, National Award-winning Tamil actor Prakash Raj finally gets to do something other than be a menacing villain in Bollywood. It’s not a character with much breadth, but it’s still a pleasant change. Yograj Singh as Milkha’s coach Ranveer Singh is particularly amusing when he suddenly changes his accent and tone while in conversation with an Australian trainer in Australia. The lovable young Jabtej Singh playing little Milkha is also a noteworthy talent.
Shankar Ehsaan Loy have whipped up a rollicking good score for this film. Barring one awkwardly-inserted song featuring the soldiers celebrating Milkha’s success, the rest are well placed too. That throbbing, haunting Zinda number comes in at a point when you are least expecting it. And Slow motion angreza – with lyrics that meld the foreign-sounding “Wulu-mulu wulu-mulu wonda” with the desi “ghul-mill, ghul-mill launda” – is an absolute riot of energy and fun.
As sports films go, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is not in the league of the iconic Chariots of Fire or our very own Chak De or that under-rated gem Iqbal. Nor does it match Rakeysh’s best, Rang De Basanti. With all its flaws though, in the overall analysis it does have many important points to make and the lasting impression is of a technically excellent and poignant, inspiring, enjoyable film.
Rating (out of five): ***1/2
CBFC Rating (India):