Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag: Review

Milkha Singh’s life has been so dramatic that you’d get a pretty remarkable film out of it just by sticking to the facts. A child of Partition, he rose from almost nothing to become India’s greatest sprinter. He also became a national sporting icon in a country that, till then, had reserved its veneration for cricket and hockey players. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag takes these facts and heightens them, gives them the old Bollywood shine. Whether or not you care about an embellishment here, a liberty taken there will probably end up determining how you react to this film.

Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra starts off on a curious note, with Milkha’s most famous error of judgment. After a strong start in the 400m at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Milkha turned while running and lost momentum. He ended up fourth by a whisker and retired without ever winning an Olympic medal. Among the many theories as to why he looked back, Mehra’s is probably the most inventive. He suggests the runner was distracted by the ghosts of Partition, an excuse wrapped in a personal tragedy.

After this perplexing opening, the story unfolds in flashback. We see Milkha as a happy, mischievous kid in Multan, telling his lame father (metaphor!) that he wants to become a fauji; later, his parents are killed before his eyes and he escapes across the border with his sister. There, he becomes a knife-wielding thief, before deciding to join the army to make something of himself and win the love of Biroo (Sonam Kapoor). There, he’s helped by a triumvirate of mentors (Prakash Raj, Pavan Malhotra, Yograj Singh) and gradually transforms himself into the legend we know.

Rakeysh Mehra’s term papers must have been hell to grade because he’s never made a point that he didn’t immediately underline. We know that Milkha became a national-level runner against some odds. But did he really break the national record after having had shoe spikes driven into his legs by jealous rivals the night before? Or take, for instance, the reasonable assertion that Milkha was a natural athlete. Mehra isn’t content with indicating this, or even having several people say it in different ways. No, he’ll take us into a long and unnecessary flashback, with schoolboy Milkha running across the burning sand.

When it isn’t off chasing phantoms, Bhaag Milkha is a solid sports film. The races – and there are a lot of them – are fast and convincing. Farhan Akhtar must have worked hard to acquire that whippet-like physique, but he also very successfully conveys the self-belief and mulish determination at the heart of Milkha’s success. Raj and Singh supply the tough love, and Malhotra is outstanding as the coach who first spots potential in the callow young recruit who runs simply for extra rations.

If that last bit reminds you of Paan Singh Tomar, you probably won’t be the only one. Yet, despite the many themes it shares with Tigmanshu Dhulia’s 2012 semi-indie, Bhaag Milkha is unapologetic about being a Bollywood biopic. Everything is larger than life: Milkha’s idea of making a point about corruption to a policeman is to drink two cans of ghee and do dozens of push-ups. Also very Bollywood is the relegation of all female characters to ceremonial roles. Divya Dutta is appropriately tearful as Milkha’s elder sister, Kapoor’s Punjabi accent remains untested, and Meesha Shafi – playing a national-level swimmer – might not have minded having little to do in a film that indulges in a fair amount of Pak-bashing.

Binod Pradhan, veteran cinematographer, indulges Mehra’s penchant for varied visual palettes in the same film. The soundtrack is by those masters of the generic, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, and the lyrics and dialogue by Prasoon Joshi. Go into it knowing that this race isn’t to the swift, and that you’ll be there for three hours.

This review appeared in Time Out.

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