Few outside of India have heard of Milkha Singh, the gifted Indian athlete who held the 400-meter world record and represented the country at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
But filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra trusts that Singh’s story will resonate with global audiences, not because of the athlete’s brush with world fame, but because of the universal themes of pride, hard work and redemption that his life represent. His bet has paid off: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Run Milkha Run) triumphs in its depiction of a man coming to terms with the ugliest scenes from his childhood, witnessing his parents’ slaughter during the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and the resultant genocide, and rebuilding his life to become an Indian icon.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has opened wide for an Indian release in the U.S., in 140 theaters. Its length — bloated by several overlong segments and superfluous songs — and the complexity of the India-Pakistan rivalry at the core of the story may prove offputting for non-Indian audiences, but the film is likely to attract healthy returns at the box office within India.
Farhan Akhtar’s intelligent performance is a highlight of the film. He is known as a writer and director, with his 2001 release, Dil Chahta Hai, redefining the youth genre, and Don and Don 2cementing Shah Rukh Khan’s reputation as an action star. He made the shift to acting under the radar, in the little-seen 2005 festival film The Fakir of Venice. Since then, he has earned accolades for roles in films such as Rock On!! and 2011’s delightful bromance Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.
The smart, sinewy Akhtar does not look like the typical Bollywood hero, which is one of the factors that Mehra says led him to choose him for the role after a casting search that took him as far as Canada, the UK and the U.S. He trained hard for a year and a half before the start of shooting, including a regimen in mountainous Ladakh at 14,000 feet. But beyond the impressive physique he has cultivated for the role, Akhtar has captured a sense of focus and piety that led Singh to rise from his humble beginnings as a post-Partition refugee and small-time crook to national champion.
Prasoon Joshi’s screenplay does not tell Milkha’s story chronologically, instead relying on a series of flashbacks that can seem unclear until the end of the film, when Milkha travels back to his home town to experience a moving catharsis. In one memorable scene, the adult Milkha has a vision of his 12-year-old self, and for once in his life, comes to love and accept the boy within unconditionally.
Mehra has taken great care in casting Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, with sensitive performances from Divya Dutta (as Milkha’s devoted elder sister), Sonam Kapoor (Raanjhanaa, Delhi 6) as a brief but important love interest, Prakash Raj as a hard-driving army leader, and especially Pavan Malhotra as a compassionate mentor, the first trainer to spot Milkha’s potential. Mehra himself makes a small, comical cameo as an airline pilot on Milkha’s first flight.
Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s background score is powerful in all the right parts, and special mention must be made of the excellent wig and hair work by Avan Contractor and B. Blunt, who make the long, uncut hair of Milkha’s Sikh faith appear entirely natural on Akhtar.
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra has been called a patriotic filmmaker: he was lauded as the director of Rang De Basanti, a 2006 film that captured India’s youth on the brink of rebellion, and his works also include the 2011 documentary Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told. But with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, he takes no shortcuts in depicting the literal blood, sweat and tears Singh shed in his pursuit of excellence. That is a patriotic message that is exhilarating indeed.