Review of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, 2013 Bollywood Film By Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra Starring Farhan Akhtar
It has been a while since Bollywood has brought out a three hour epic, and therefore I was apprehensive about the audience response towards Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, which runs close to 189 minutes. Predictably, a couple of youngsters began texting on their cell-phones ten minutes after the movie began. This activity however stopped after a while, and the theatre hall became unusually silent and more responsive towards the film than the PJs (poor jokes) messaged by their buddies on WhatsApp. The girl besides me too paid attention (reacting stupidly with a ‘Eww!’ every time Farhan bled or spat) as the movie paced towards its finisher. Just at the end, this same girl who spent the last two and three-fourth hours cackling at the most inappropriate moments (carrying all the symptoms of a ‘Dumb Blonde’, except she was brunette) said what can be the best way to summarise this film: Every subplot has been strectched too long. I too had the same thought running in my head, but to hear these words from her mouth made it easier for me to understand why this movie doesn’t work the way it should.
Director Rakyesh Om Prakash Mehra has indeed stretched each sublot to a four hundred metre stretch when he could’ve ended it all in a hundred metre dash; this wasn’t unexpected really, as his first and probably the best effort to date Rang De Basanti itself lumbered as it came to a tragic close. This is a thoroughly entertaining biopic Bollywood style, which looks back at itself, frets that it hasn’t done enough to honor Milkha’s glory (and enough to become commercial), and so adds more and more till it exacerbates its weaknesses and exhausts us patience. It’s like watching a Life Time achievement honoree who just doesn’t know when to end his speech; you either need a Professor Umbridge to ‘Hem Hem’ him or a Meira Kumar to cry ‘Baith Jaiye!’.
Milkha Singh has a dark past that haunts him, most crucially during the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he looks back just as he is about to win the race. This costs him the gold medal and the reigning World record champion racer shrinks back to his home, not answering his coach’s urgent phone calls. There is an upcoming friendly race in Pakistan and everybody, including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, rests their hopes on Milkha Singh. However, Milkha has a personal reason that hinders him from participating in the land of Pakistan. The Indian coach Ranveer Singh, Milkha’s coach Gurudev Singh and a committee member travel to his home to convince Milkha to participate; it is on their train journey when we hear about Milkha’s entire life story from Gurudev Singh.
It starts from his days at the army camp, where Milkha wins a race chanting ‘doodh, doodh!’ (the top ten winners were to get a glass of doodh or milk, and eggs), dreams of wearing the Indian Team blazer (leading to a rivalry with the leading racer, who confronts Milkha after the latter tries on his blazer without taking his permission), breaks the National record despite an injury, romances village girl Biro until she gets married to somebody (no further mention of her), flies to Australia to flirt with the granddaughter of the Australian technical coach (who weirdly addresses her granddad as ‘granddad’. I don’t know but it sounded awkward to my ears) and loses the race (no correlation between the two events though), works like Rocky to beat the existing world record (that includes training at some unknown location surrounded by hills) and eventually basks in jubilant glory. Interspersed throughout the film are flashes of his childhood, where we eventually learn what horrors he had witnessed as a young, impressionable boy.
Anyone who has seen Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane will remember how Kane’s life was seen through the eyes of different narrators, each giving an insight of his or her experience with the publishing tycoon. Noone says anything he or she cannot know, and that’s what makes their stories fascinating and believable. Now what would be the chances of Milkha Singh telling his coach Gurudev that he had slept with the Australian girl on their Melbourne tour? Or that he had snubbed the reigning Indian female swimmer’s advances? Writer Prasoon Joshi thinks nobody would notice this implausibility but it ain’t that hard to figure out; the story’s framing device could’ve had two narrators – Gurudev, who would narrate about Milkha’s training, and Milkha himself, who would take us to more personal memories using flashbacks. We shouldn’t be blamed for going ‘Huh?! But how does he know that?’ often during the film.
There is a ‘havan’ song in the film which has stirred Hindu organizations, who demand that the part be removed. Yes, the song should be removed but not for the reason they’re giving; the real reason is that it’s an unnecessary number beginning abruptly and making little impact on the film’s continuity. The romance between Milkha and Biro (played by Sonam Kapoor, who seems out of place in every film she has starred in, especially here where she sounds like a ‘Mehemsaab’ in a little village) is given too much screen time; far more interesting is the romance between Milkha and Australian Stella, which is dominated by music when words could’ve made their moments sweeter.
Scenes which could’ve been inspiring are made insipid with unrequired gags, and many points could’ve been subtler and more incisive. A cutting remark by a Pakistani coach, for example, didn’t require to be highlighted with such emphasis (close up shot of Milkha’s face losing color followed by another close up of the haughty Pakistani coach) and could’ve been replaced with subtle digs usually heard among rivals. The felicitation at the end takes too long to end, and I personally felt the film could’ve ended right after Milkha’s personal journey reached its resolution.
Yet, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is an enormously entertaining and sometimes engrossing biopic (Mehra’s especially strong when it comes to transitions; the occasional shifts to Milkha’s childhood is especially worth a watch); its lead Farhan Akhtar is a strong presence who is consistently watchable, faltering only towards the end when the emotions he needs to bring are too overwhelming for him. It’s funny how whenever I heard ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag!’ I could also hear ‘Run Forrest Run!’ in my mind. That’s a line from the Tom Hanks film ‘Forrest Gump, an emotionally richer (much richer) movie. Try watching that film after Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and you’ll see the difference.