In a recent pre-release press conference, director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra summed up the heart of his latest film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag as the story of a man that lost his biggest race but ended up winning at life. This, of course, refers to the 400m world champion and titular character Milkha Singh missing out at a chance at a medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. It was a loss that became one of the biggest regrets of his otherwise stellar athletic career. It also sets up an intriguing premise for a film by the same director that previously gave us the landmark Rang De Basanti.
Instead, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, written by Prasoon Joshi, is too disjointed and meandering a film to ever be focused on any one point. Clocking in at over three hours long, Mehra’s ode to one of India’s sporting heroes (portrayed by Farhan Akhtar) is a commendable effort, but gets dizzyingly lost in detailing every stage of the runner’s life, even (presumably) fictionalized elements that serve no purpose in advancing the story.
The film begins with Prime Minister Nehru (Dalip Tahil, sufficient) sending an advisor and two former coaches to Singh to convince him to head the Indian delegation to Lahore in the upcoming Indo-Pak Dual Meet, an offer he has turned down.
As the three men take the train from Delhi to Chandigarh to meet with Singh, one of his former coaches (Pawan Malhotra, endearing) starts to explain why Singh is refusing to go to Pakistan. Thus the entire film is set up with this premise and the frenetic series of flashbacks it generates.
Therein lies the major misstep in structuring the narrative. It makes the film about uncovering Singh’s mysterious reason for not going to Pakistan, which, for an Indian audience too aware of the Partition, is not really a revelation or something that needs to be withheld from the plot until the end.
Singh was a victim of the bloody partition of India in 1947. Witnessing the massacre of his family left him with a lifelong trauma and a lost childhood. It’s a story, and a past, that millions of families on both sides of the border can relate to. It’s also a plot device used umpteen times by films across India. An epic not-quite-a-biopic of this scale should not have been hinged on this alone.
There are moments of his life that prove to be engaging viewing. Singh’s years in a refugee camp in Delhi, then joining the army, and struggling with the obstacles of making it to the Indian national team, are all interesting tidbits as part of the greater story arc. However, each segment is needlessly outstretched to include equal parts drama, comedy, running, and song.
For instance, there’s a ridiculous (and ridiculously long) scene where Singh chugs two whole cans of ghee for, well, no good reason.
What this produces is a film that hops from one part of his life to another, hits prescribed narrative goalposts in each, and then goes back to the storytelling coach on the train, who still hasn’t gotten to the point of why Singh refuses to go to Pakistan.
The moment that suffers tremendously as a result of this schizophrenic style of storytelling is when Singh loses the race at the Rome Olympics. It is placed too early in the film without relevant context or emotional weight, for his loss to mean anything.
Similarly, with every race that Singh wins or struggles through, Mehra never sticks around long enough for the momentum to reach its emotional peak. It’s hard to be moved by Singh’s successes and failures when the film is in a hurry to switch to another part of his life.
The visual tone and treatment too keep changing – the traumatic Partition sequences look like they’re outtakes from the film 300 (hyper-stylized, sepia-toned, slow-motioned drama), while the scenes at the refugee camp look like a TV serial (complete with Divya Dutta as the sister who cries at the drop of a hat, and a sad violin background score).
The best parts of the film, emotionally and visually, are the sequences where he goes through rigorous training and competes in the various races around the world. The montages of archival footage introducing the various Olympic Games are fascinating to watch. The Melbourne Olympics are also recreated well.
Despite the film’s various flaws, Farhan Akhtar, as Milkha Singh, deserves a lot of praise. His preparation for the role is evident and he fits into it quite convincingly. The blood, sweat and tears that Singh’s character goes through, especially in his rise as a star athlete, are really brought to life by Akhtar.
The women in the film, on the other hand, have little relevance. Sonam Kapoor as Singh’s first love Biro giggles her way through a very small and limited role. After a point, she simply disappears from the film. Singh’s Australian fling Stella (Rebecca Breeds, charming) brings slightly more to the story and character development. And then there’s Meesha Shafi as Perizaad, a fellow athlete on the Indian team that has no reason to be in the film whatsoever. The divergent romantic angles keep stalling the film just when it starts picking up momentum.
The music, by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, is melodious and works well within the milieu of the film. It doesn’t have the same memorable effect as the soundtracks of Delhi 6 and Rang De Basanti, but is still pleasant listening. Of particular note are the rustic romantic number ‘Mera Yaar’ and the film’s energetic anthem ‘Zinda’.
Ultimately, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a film that was created out of a very relevant story, but has been turned into a frustrating mishmash of events. The film, with its excessive length, becomes a tiring watch. Mehra and his writer Joshi don't maintain a grip on the narrative, and by trying to depict every possible moment in Singh's life, they end up losing the main point of the film. It's unfortunate, since Mehra's noble intentions and Singh's clearly fascinating life, aren't really done justice.