You’d think Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’s inspiration in real events should have sufficed––although truth in hagiographic terms is always selective and particularly so in a project blessed by the protagonist himself.
But Mehra doesn't stop till he has squeezed out every emotion the same way Milkha (Farhan Akhtar) squeezes the last drop of sweat from his shirt (first into a tumbler, later a bucket signifying the growth of his aspirations and determination), spilling his blood on the track, running against harsh landscapes, mindless of nails and wounds to his tired limbs.
Milkha Singh’s life is shaped by his father’s (Art Malik, who, if you’ve seen Schwarzenegger’s True Lies more than once, is impossible to imagine in any other role, and certainly not Milkha’s father from Lyallpur) words ringing in his ears––"bhaag Milkha bhaag" and the terror of a swordsman on horseback piercing the stormy night to wipe out a little boy's pind. It's this boy (Japtez Singh, terrific actor with sparkling eyes) who draws us into the story and the director is smart enough to use him in measured doses, interspersing the athlete's struggle on the track with the child’s escape from the horrors of Partition on an overcrowded train, into a refugee camp and finally, the warmth of his older sister's (Divya Dutta, excellent) bosom.
Hindi cinema rarely speaks of the Partition even in hushed tones. Here we get a glimpse of the tragedy that befell the sub-continent leaving millions like Milkha scarred for life, torn apart from home and family, travelling without food or water for days on end into an uncertain future. The refugee camp he arrives at is located around the ruins of an old fort––as if to suggest human history is a continuum of destruction and displacement.
The boy nearly gets crushed in a crowd of outstretched arms clamouring around a food truck and you know why later in life, he’s willing to run his heart out for a cup of milk and two raw eggs. Up to this point, the film has you firmly in its grip, starting with the rousing opening which also marks the Flying Sikh’s greatest disappointment––the Rome Olympics of 1960 where he missed the Bronze by a whisker––leading up, in reverse, to his transformation into a coal thief.
Bachchan-like, his brush with the wrong side is propelled by the rape and humiliation of his sister at her husband’s hands (a rare dramatic moment sans background music, hence all the more chilling). Later, Milkha channels the same fire into his races under the tutelage of benevolent coaches (Pawan Malhotra and Yograj Singh).
But enter Sonam Kapoor and things start going wrong––picture a rustic Punjabi girl of the 1950s saying,“Gandhiji ke janamdin par poore India mein chutti hoti hai,” in rich Juhu kid’s accent––and needless songs-and-dance breaking the narrative. Later Milkha travels to Australia and has brief dalliances No. 2 and 3 in quick succession. One doesn’t really care about the veracity of these episodes illustrating the star athlete’s prowess with women, but we’re glad Pandit Nehru (Dalip Tahil, not sure if he was miscast or plain bad) nudges him back to Pakistan to make his peace with the past.
But BMB has a lot going for it––the fantastic visual design, for instance. Using documentary footage and snippets from various competitive events around the world Mehra seamlessly reconstructs the period, while Binod Pradhan’s expansive cinematography matches its epic ambitions.
Above all though there's the inspiring story of an unlikely champion and his tireless pursuit of international glory (synchronous with the pride of a young nation) and an actor’s commitment to his screen persona. Not for a long time has one seen such astonishing physical transformation as Farhan Akhtar’s, lending immense credence to the heroic narrative.
He deserves a standing ovation.
Deepa Deosthalee is a film critic and a regular contributor to Cinemascope column. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and does not reflect the views of IndiaNewsBulletin.com. More of Deepa's work can be found on her site Film Impressions.