Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
The Indian Express rating: ** 1/2
Are you relaxing? No,I am Milkha Singh. This is one of those legendary jokes that typifies a couple of things: Punjabi humour in all its quirky broadness,and the man who is supposed to have said it,the legendary athlete who broke records on national and international tracks,and became a byword for sporting excellence in India.
Ive always thought the line was apocryphal. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehras film,inspired by a true life grounds the joke in a moment,and cements the tone of the film. Carefully skirting the tag of a bio-pic,Bhaag Milkha Bhaag manages to tell the story of Milkha Singh,as enacted by Farhan Akhtar,while giving us,tiresomely,all the familiar bells and whistles of a Bollywood entertainer with the naach-gaana,and the rona-dhona.
The story of Milkha Singh is inspirational,doubtless. And Mehra leaves,literally,not one stone unturned (and adds a few of his own,doubtless) in this three hour and some saga,which takes us from Milkhas childhood in then Punjab-now Pakistan,the trauma of Partition and being torn from his (Milkhas) family,his lawless youth,his joining the Indian Army and gaining respectability. And then learning the joys of running. For himself,and for the honour of his nation.
But the way the director tells it is much less inspiring. Its almost as if he needs to talk up his film in order to entice us to watch it. Why,you ask yourself,when you see a burst of sporting glory,the kind that becomes goose-flesh immortal every time someone refers to it even,does the director need to dress up his story so much that it nearly drowns? The face of a winner,at the end of a tough race,is such a win in itself. Is there any need to underline it,just in case we miss the point,with loud background music?
When the film is left to tell the story unvarnished,it has several felt passages. And most of them belong to Milkhas childhood. Little Milkha and his plump friend,wading through a river,tossing a few lines between them as friends are wont to. His being made to be a murga in the tiny village school,and colloquial talk of his thui ( backside,reddening at the touch of a masters chhadi/stick). His strong love for older sister (Dutta) which keeps him going in adulthood. It is a strong segment,with Art Malik,playing Milkhas father,and who exhorts him to run,to flee to the other side of the newly formed,bloody border.
In short order,Bhaag Milkha Bhaag starts getting overlaid by too much drama and mawkishness. Farhan Akhtar is consistently likeable but not always believable as the eponymous hero. He does everything he needs to: the liking for duddh (milk) that gets him to start the back-breaking training,his early attraction to a pretty Punjaban (Kapoor),the little flirtations he indulges in (one with a saucy Aussie girl in Melbourne),and then straining every sinew for a win. You can see Akhtars hard work,both on his physique,and the way he runs on the track and field and everywhere else,as well as his accent. But the moment you place him alongside a Pawan Malhotra,who plays his Army coach,and who speaks Punjabi just the way it ought to be spoken,guttural,from the heart,that you know that difference between acting a part and the real deal.
As the Indian athletics coach who accompanies Milkha in his latter journeys,Yograj Singh is effective. So is Prakash Raj as the stentorian,if a tad stereotypical,Army senior. Dutta,too,as the loving badi behen leaves a mark. Kapoors presence,as the love angle,is mercifully brief. It is meant to be sweet,that little interlude,but you can see it for what it is,playacting.
If the film had kept it pared,toning down the trumpets which blare every time something momentous is about to happen,it would have been a more powerful testament to an all-time sporting great. As it has turned out,Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is more the overlong,overblown Singing-Dancing-Flying Sikh,than just the triumphal,true Flying Sikh.