Film Review: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

The life of an Indian sports icon is given the Bollywood treatment, with all that that entails.

There’s probably a joke to be made about the fact that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, which chronicles the life of celebrated Indian short-distance runner Milkha Singh a.k.a. “The Flying Sikh,” clocks in at a three-hour running time that’s more appropriate for a marathon. But then, this glossy, embellished, self-serious and yet mostly enjoyable triumph-over-adversity sports movie would almost certainly never think to make such a wisecrack itself. Like the recent made-in-America Jackie Robinson-themed baseball movie, 42, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag unfailingly presents its central athlete—whose accomplishments include representing India in two Olympics (1956 and 1960, respectively), setting a world record in the 400-meter race in a preliminary Olympic round and winning several gold medals at other international sporting events—with dewy-eyed reverence. What few failings he had off the field are mostly overlooked and forgiven due to what he accomplished on it.

And, to be fair, director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra himself has advised against regarding the film as a traditional biopic, a tacit acknowledgment of the liberties he and screenwriter Prasoon Joshi have taken with Singh’s life story. As with Brian Hegeland’s presentation of Robinson in 42, Mehra is more interested in capturing what the Flying Sikh symbolizes for his native land. As the movie presents it, Milkha's own personal struggles mirrors India’s post-Raj, post-Partition struggles to find its footing as an independent nation and provide its citizenry with a sense of national pride. It's an approach that, while not exactly a model of historical authenticity, does tap into why sports can function as such a powerful unifier, allowing individuals to put aside their disagreements and differences and find common ground in the shared excitement of competition.

Interestingly, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag begins not on the day of one of its subject’s greatest triumphs, but rather one of his more agonizing defeats. Having smoked the field in the preliminary rounds of the 1960 Rome Olympics, Singh (played by the ridiculously buff Farhan Akhtar, the producer and director behind the blockbuster Bollywood Don franchise) was heavily favored to nab a medal—specifically the gold—in the 400-meter finals. Instead, he wound up finishing in fourth place, a loss that, in the movie’s version of events at least, temporarily drove him out of competitive sports and into self-imposed seclusion. Despite his Roman meltdown, the Indian government desperately needs him to compete in an upcoming “friendly” sports match with Pakistan in an effort to ease tensions between the two not-so-friendly neighbors. Singh is reluctant to make the trip for reasons unrelated to his Olympic disappointment, however—reasons that are fairly clear early on, but not made explicitly so until much, much later.

To secure his participation in the event, a government flunky and Singh’s two trainers take the long train journey to his home, during which time the trainers fill the flunky in on Milkha’s personal history with an almost free-associative approach to chronology. Initially flashing back to his early days in the military, where his fleet feet are noticed by an attentive officer/track coach (Pavan Malhorta), the movie then races further backwards to his experiences as an orphaned refugee fleeing the newly created Pakistan for India in 1947. Frequently cutting (inelegantly, I should add) between these two eras of his life, Mehra parallels Singh’s growth and maturity as a racer with his growth and maturity as a man. Turning to petty theft both for the profit and the companionship it brings, young Milkha seems headed for a life of crime and unrealized potential, until the love of a beautiful woman sets him on the path that leads to the Army and, eventually, competitive racing. But before he can even start to dream of the Olympics, Singh has to overcome challenges ranging from his own inexperience to a jealous fellow racer with a Tonya Harding-like approach to thwarting his rivals.

And all that happens before Intermission! The movie’s second half follows a more straightforward timeline that takes the viewer through Singh’s initial stumbles as a racer—encapsulated in a team training session in Australia, where he imbibes alcohol and beds a knockout blonde before losing big-time on the track—until he redoubles his efforts via training montages that would make Rocky Balboa proud and emerges as a champion. Once we’ve caught back up to the post-Rome present, the movie concerns itself with Milkha’s trip back to Pakistan, where he’ll be racing their reigning speed demon—the Apollo to his Rocky—Abdul Khaliq, and wrestling with the bitter memories of how he came to escape the country, after his parents and much of his village were brutally killed by rampaging vigilantes on horseback.

Apart from the inflated running time and certain cultural signifiers (one big romantic scene happens in the rain, for example), stylistically Bhaag Milkha Bhaag owes more to Hollywood than Bollywood. In other words, don't expect much in the way of colorful dance numbers (there are maybe one or two sequences in that tradition, but most of the musical moments are montage-based) or melodramatic plot reveals. Instead, Mehra hews closely to the underdog sports-movie playbook established by such people’s favorites as Rocky, Rudy and Hoosiers—lots of inspiring speeches, unexpected setbacks, nail-biting close finishes and glorious triumphs played out in slow-motion to give the audience extra time to applaud. And when viewed through that lens, it's an effectively made (if still overlong) film, one that elevates a single athlete's story into legend as a way into his country's history. Just don't confuse this particular legend for fact.