BHAAG MILKHA BHAAG
Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Screenwriter: Prasoon Joshi
Runtime: 186 mins.
Australian release date: 13 July 2013
Older ‘Indiaphiles’ and sports-lovers may well remember the ‘Flying Sikh’, one-time world champion in the 400m track and field event, from his visit to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. If you don’t, don’t worry, for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Run Milkha Run) will tell you all about the extraordinary tale of Milkha Singh. Farhan Akhtar (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara) breathes life into the great athlete with the tragic past, for Singh was born a Sikh in what was to become Muslim Pakistan. As a boy he witnessed the slaughter of his parents, two sisters and a brother in the bloody mayhem that followed Partition and he was forced to flee his village in Punjab. Arriving in Delhi, a refugee, he stayed for some time with an older sister, flirting with a life of petty crime before being convinced to enlist in the army. It was there that his talent for running was recognised and nurtured. Prasoon Joshi’s script reveals all this in flashback before relating the story of Singh’s successes and failures, culminating in his historic race against the Pakistani athlete Abdul Khaliq in Lahore in 1960, where he earned the ‘Flying Sikh’ moniker.
That’s the big picture but Mehra and Joshi also provide much of the detail of Singh’s life in the film’s three hour plus running time. Of particular interest to Australian viewers will be the story of Singh’s romance with a young Australian woman (Rebecca Breeds) during the time he was in Melbourne for the Olympics. The other love in his life was Nirmal (Sonam Kapoor, daughter of famed Bollywood star Anil Kapoor), the girl who promised to wait for him while he made something of himself. This section of the film is charming in its depiction of Singh’s romancing of the young woman at the local well, looked on by the tut-tutting married ladies of the suburb.
Farhan Akhtar is a true all-rounder in the Hindi film industry. Not only does he act, and he’s utterly convincing as Singh (he’s certainly got a world-class athlete’s physique!), but he also produces and writes and directs. And if that’s not enough, he’s a singer and a songwriter, too. Oh, and did I mention that he can dance? This being a Bollywood film, director Mehra has been able to work a couple of numbers into Bhaag Milkha Bhaag that showcase Akhtar’s moves in that department. Supporting roles are all consistently good but this is Akhtar’s movie and he’s in practically every scene once we leave Singh’s boyhood behind.
Tech credits are top rate. Mehra’s direction is faultless and he’s ably supported by Binod Pradhan’s excellent cinematography and P. S. Bharati’s skilful editing. As films about sporting heroes go, this is up there with the best like Chariots of Fire. It deals with some pretty big themes, such as failure, disgrace and redemption. And, in bookending the film with Singh’s tragic flight from and triumphant return to Pakistan, it also covers a large slice of India’s early history after independence and Partition. It’s a lot of ground to cover but Mehra brings it off with flying colours.