It’s an odd turn of events when a web page whose accuracy is suspect can fill you with more insight about a person than a painstakingly mounted three-hour movie. In possession of but the most generic facts about the Flying Sikh, I looked up the Wikipedia entry and found this: “As of 2013, he is the only Indian male athlete to win an individual athletics Gold in Commonwealth Games… He is married to former captain of Indian Women Volleyball team, Nirmal Kaur… Despite the lack of an Olympic medal, Milkha Singh’s achievements are hailed because of the circumstances under which he achieved them as well as the lack of infrastructure and resources in independent post-colonial India.” That, right there, is a great story. The union of two people from two spheres of sport, bookended by two bits of perspective – first, a single man’s exceptional achievement in a country of crores, and second, what this meant to a new nation thirsting for freshly forged heroes, once the heroes of the Independence movement had passed on.
Save the winning of the medal, none of this is in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. There’s always something happening, but very little perspective on why this man’s life demanded to be made into a movie. We didn’t face this issue with Paan Singh Tomar, the story of another athlete from a newly minted India. He too joined the army, discovered a sporting talent (and the fact that this talent would ensure good food; Milkha, similarly, loves milk, which he gets glassfuls of after he opts to run), and preferred to run barefoot rather than with shoes with spikes. But each major race gave us insights into Tomar’s psyche, while also showcasing his character quirks. Milkha Singh (a hardworking Farhan Akhtar) comes across, simply, as an affable god-fearing bloke – and affable god-fearing blokes are the hardest to put on screen. The very niceness that makes them wonderful to be around is deadly for drama. We need to feel the drive, the dedication, the sacrifices, the madness even that it takes, in a ghee-loving country, to consecrate one’s body to the pursuit of athletic excellence. We see a lot of this. We feel none of it.
I felt nothing for Milkha when his family (which includes Art Malik with a fantastic beard) is massacred. I felt nothing when he returned to his village and wept, and he was reunited with an old friend. (I had a hard time remembering who this old friend was.) I felt nothing for his romance with Biro (Sonam Kapoor). I felt nothing when he lost, and when he won races. A film like this should whip you into a frenzy, and here I felt I was at the receiving end of a life in bullet points. This happened. Then that happened. Then this happened. And then that happened. The glue that holds it all together, unifying these various happenings into a single remarkable life, is absent – and this loss is all the more acute because of Mehra’s mode of operation. His filmmaking may be state-of-the-art, but he is a resolutely old-fashioned filmmaker in the best sense: he loves the rhythms, the dramatic devices of pre-multiplex Bollywood, and he’s not afraid to trot them out in the service of his stories.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has capital-S sentiment, involving a sister (Divya Dutta) who springs Milkha from jail with money obtained from selling her earrings. There’s comic relief in an army recruit who speaks in a high voice. There’s a villain (marked with the villainous name of Sher Singh Rana) who sneers at Milkha’s dreams of wearing the India blazer – and their subsequent competition, with Milkha running barefoot and Sher Singh with fancy shoes, carries the charge of Naya Daur playing out on a racetrack. Some of the performances are ripely theatrical. Dalip Tahil, who plays Nehru, seems to be auditioning for Bharat Bhushan’s role in Jahan Ara, declaring national holidays with the sense of happy entitlement that made kings shower gold coins on the court poet. The musical cues, too, are unapologetically old-world. A sarangi wails when Milkha is reunited with his sister after the Partition, and Milkha’s recurring Zanjeer-like nightmare, involving a horse and triggered by the cry “bhaag Milkha,” is thickly layered with terrifying sound.
This prime purpose of this hyper-emotional style of filmmaking is to make us feel – all this emotion is the glue. That’s why, in the older films, we don’t complain about how inorganic the individual elements are – they come together not logically (in the head) but emotionally (in the heart). And when that doesn’t happen, we begin to question the use of those tropes, like in the Biro interlude, where we’re shown that Milkha stopped his illegal dealings when she hauled him up. In an older film, her words would have stung like a whiplash and that hurt would have been held on to, but here, the moment is never brought up again and all we experience is yet another iteration of the ‘wayward man reformed by the love of a good woman’ cliché. Another ill-used masala-movie trope is the one when a child transforms into an adult in the midst of an activity that defines him. After Partition, in a refugee camp, Milkha drifts into a group of delinquents, and they steal coal from trains. One instant, Milkha is a boy, being chased by someone who’s caught him stealing, and the next, he’s a man – he’s Farhan Akhtar. This is a great hero-introduction shot – the only problem being that we’ve already been introduced to the hero. The film begins with the 1960 Rome Olympics, where Milkha’s loss dashed a nation’s hopes, and this later shot of boy-becoming-man feels redundant.
That, really, could be said about a lot of this long movie. (Pawan Malhotra, who plays Milkha’s coach Gurudev Singh, utters the film’s truest words: “Yeh kahaani bahut lambi hai.”) The portions in Australia, for instance, where Milkha has a fling with a local named Stella (Rebecca Breeds), feel out of place in this narrative because if we’re hewing to old-world values (in filmmaking if not in life), then the loss of Biro would not have resulted in Milkha’s sleeping with another woman, leave alone a western woman., especially in the 1950s. Why not linger on this uncharacteristic development (for an Indian male of the time, who’d have nursed a heavy heart through a couple of Rafi numbers) instead of just casually throwing it in our faces? Throughout Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, we are rarely inside Milkha’s head. After winning all those other races, why did he fail in Rome? Surely the metaphor of running as a way of fleeing past horrors was at play earlier too, and when he was able to conquer those emotions, why not in Rome? These are beats that need dwelt on, and the subsequent shame, scored to the cries of an angry nation (a newspaper headline goes, The Great Indian Tragedy), doesn’t register either. We’re meant to see how Milkha worked his way out of this hole and steeled himself for a sporting event in Pakistan, the home of all his Partition-related horrors, but the film, with its flashbacks, keeps looping back on itself and this clean narrative hook is lost.
One way to make a sports movie is to draw from the Rocky template. One underdog. One sweet girlfriend. One gruff coach who ladles out tough love. One big fight. But Mehra is after a sprawling epic, and the constant back-and-forth of the narrative blurs the clean emotional lines and erodes our investment. The scenes in the past (like Milkha being unafraid to run on hot sand) don’t inform the future, and there’s no buildup to the last race. (Some lives deserve the epic treatment. Maybe this one didn’t?) And it doesn’t help that scenes just go on and on, with a framing device that revolves around three men who set out on a train to Chandigarh in order to convince Milkha to participate in that event in Pakistan. You think, once they finish the backstory and meet the man, something will happen, something dramatic to justify the need to show their setting out on this journey in the first place – but there’s no payoff. They have tea at Milkha’s and tell him, baldly, that the Prime Minister wants to meet him. Where’s the drama of his decision-making, the pull between wanting to serve the nation and save himself from the past? A telephone call from the Prime Minister’s office would have sufficed.
The sporting sequences are equally adrift. All the training – the really important stuff, like improving stamina – seems to happen in the second half, so we’re left with the question if it was just dumb luck and constant running practice that helped Milkha win those earlier races. (It clearly wasn’t, but the film makes it look that way.) There’s the feeling that Milkha Singh began to take running seriously only after the failure at Melbourne, because earlier, the races are used for entertainment – for comedy (his discomfort with spiked shoes looks like learning to walk in high heels) or drama (a stone that pierces his foot is inflated to a big metaphor about obstacles that need to be overcome). Small moments are suffused with Enormous Significance. The scene where Milkha Singh, after that humiliation at Melbourne, walks up to his coach and indirectly indicates his desire to do better is so drawn out and laden with import that at any moment I thought I’d begin to hear conch shells.
None of Mehra’s earlier films have ended up so conventional, so dull, so like an earnest Hollywood Oscar-bait production from the 1950s. The technical values are top-notch – water has never swirled so beautifully in a brass bucket – but Mehra doesn’t use the songs as well as he did in Rang De Basanti and Delhi-6, and the characters all come from tired old moulds. (Compare Divya Dutta’s low-caste waste-collector and Pawan Malhotra’s crude businessman in flashy shirts, in Delhi-6, to the stereotypes they’re forced to play here.) The only acting moment where I sat up was when an exhausted officer at the refugee camp, after Partition, snaps at Milkha, and then, when he looks up and sees it’s just a boy, his tone softens. Mehra’s earlier films were filled with these down-to-earth and human moments. Here, there’s the stifling sense of watching something exalted, with more manipulative slow-motion running than in Chariots of Fire. Early on, when an injured Milkha Singh runs, his bandages, which unravel midway, flap in the wind like flags. He’s not won a single race, and he’s already a marble monument.
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