Film: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag
Cast: Farhan Akhtar, Yograj Singh, Japtej Singh, Divya Dutta, Sonam Kapoor, Prakash Raj, and others
Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Telling a “true story” is tricky. It appears trickier when the subject has sold you the rights for one rupee, and trained the lead actor himself. In Hollywood, 2011 was the year of the biopic, with J Edgar Hoover, Margaret Thatcher, Marilyn Monroe, and practically everyone else of any importance spawning a screen version. Bollywood, it appears, has decided to honour athletes – first, there was Paan Singh Tomar; and now, there’s Milkha Singh’s story. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra takes more than three hours to tell this story. The problem is that there is no story to tell. The film plods along from one episode in the life of Milkha Singh to the next, with barely any narrative thread to pull them all together.
Milkha Singh has led a fascinating life – he lost his family in Multan during Partition and came to India with nothing but the clothes on his back; he was rejected thrice by the Army, and eventually made it in through the EME; he went on to win sporting glory for a nation that was just finding its feet; he went on to marry a sportswoman, and have a son who would become a name to reckon with in yet another sport. Three hours is plenty of time to showcase the epic life of this man – to celebrate the athlete, and to show us the man behind the persona. It is indefensible that this film only contains a series of flashbacks that leave us strangely cold, devoid of sympathy for and pride in Milkha.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has a gooseflesh-inducing opening, in the greatest arena of all – the Olympics, 1960. Sadly, it isn’t able to sustain this momentum, and sinks almost immediately into tame dialogue, interspersed with vignettes from Milkha’s life. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru – played almost farcically by Dalip Tahil – has deputed envoys to figure out why Milkha Singh (Farhan Akhtar) will not run in Pakistan. The audience knows right away why he will not run. But the film takes us slowly, painfully, through snippets of his past, to culminate in scenes we have witnessed too often, in too many films. We went in expecting a film about the career of Milkha Singh; instead, we get a film about how he exorcised his demons. We only see 13 years of his life – from age 12 to 25 – and he completes the transition while running on a train. What a cliché!
Farhan Akhtar does deserve credit for his dedication – he has worked on his appearance and body language hard enough to transform into someone else – but his acting is not quite up to the mark. His Punjabi accent is exaggerated, and every now and again, slips into an urban drawl. He widens his eyes and grins toothily to highlight his youthful naïveté, but we are not able to forget that he’s trying to play someone nearly half his age. Perhaps he should have focused more on emotion than appearance. This is where child actor Japtej Singh, who plays the 12-year-old Milkha, excels. We are able to sense his trauma from his eyes. People who have seen too much as children grow up fast; and we search in vain for remnants of these cruel memories in the grinning, prancing, dancing, romancing Farhan Akhtar.
The film is more tribute than tale, and its gorgeous locales, skilled cinematography and uplifting music cannot prop up its flimsy plot.