Most bio-pics these days pick up one aspect or one chapter of its lead character and make him or her overcome their personal demons connected to that aspect of their life. Consequently, the film ends on a rousing high elevating the character further in our eyes. We saw this in The Aviator, where Martin Scorsese focussed on Howard Hughes' obsessive and stubborn nature ending with the successful test flight of the Hercules, Hitchcock is centred around the troubles and tribulations, particularly off screen during the making of one of Hitchcock's most popular films, Psycho and now Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, focuses not so much on his Rome 1960 run or some other major achievement but a race which meant a lot more personally to the 'Flying Sikh' - the Indo-Pak goodwill games which saw Milkha finally come to terms with the slaughter of his family during the horror of the Partition.
So. while some have labelled the film conveniently jingoistic as it involves an Indo-Pak race, which, of course, sees Milkha run as if it was his last race, I, for one, had no issues with this. For me, I would still take it more as a triumph of the central character on a psychological level over everything else and there I have to side with the film and its maker. At the same time, however, this very focus of the film proves to somewhat be its undoing as well. It is something that does not lend itself to its running time of three hours plus as the film tries desperately to make itself an epic. And it is not merely the filmmaking, or the editing (they do their part), but more importantly, it's the writing which lets down the film. Repetitive and long stretched scenes and inadequate fleshing of characters make the film sluggish, typical and even disengaging in many places.
One knows that one is in for heavy viewing when right from the beginning, Milkha's coming 4th at Rome is given a 'justifiable' but totally unbelievable psychological slant. And then when Milkha refuses to go to Pakistan for the Goodwill Games, Pavan Malhotra tells KK Raina (and us) the reason for Milkha's refusal. Really, all he had to say was it was the Partition of India and the slaughter of Milkha's family that continues to traumatise him, but no, he begins by saying that he remembered the first time he met Milka. And even here it takes several scenes before he does come across Milkha for the first time. This is one bane in Indian cinema for years now. A device of a flashback beginning from a character's POV, ends up being a total neutral telling of the story with several scenes where the 'storyteller' is nowhere in the picture and what's more here we have a flashback within flashback within this neutral narrative flow!
Even then, all could have still worked brilliantly, had the film treated the story and these scenes well. After all. the raw material of Milkha's life it had at its disposal is riveting. But the film goes a step further to make it as Bollywood friendly as it can. And while one agrees the filmmaker should uses all the cinematic tools he can to make for an engaging and accessible film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, sadly ends up many a time in stereotypical 'filmi' territory everywhere right from the beginning with Milka looking around the stadium at Rome, going on to his banging into the heroine making her drop her water, the so-called cute romance, his sporting adversaries behaving like bad Bollywood villains etc, etc, etc. The attempts to justify Milkha's underperformance at Melbourne and Rome appear naive. But the film's biggest failing is us not feeling that empathy and horror at the cold-blooded killing of Milkha's family, that he as a ten year old had to experience. The film has the slaughter scene come in way too late and by then we already know the story and what has happened to Milkha since we have seen him come alone to India, live in the refugee camps, etc post Partition. Especially so, since we have already also been told what happened to his family. Also, maybe in trying too hard to give the film a (pop) psychology layering, there is too little of actual sporting action or the sense of competition, and much of Milkha's greatest sporting victories are dismissed matter-of-fact in a split screen montage. This, in an era when Indian atheletes had little supportive infra-structure. And conveniently, all sports officials have been completely kept aside from the film.
What one cannot find fault with is 'Bandra boy' Farhan Akhtar's commitment and physical transformation to become Milkha. Farhan, though not being the best of actors (yes, his 'Punjabi' is self-conscious and the scene where he finally visits his village in Pakistan and breaks down is a little beyond him), still does hold this film together. His hard work particularly in the running scenes (though in some of them, one could feel the other athletes not going flat out to allow him to run faster!) comes shining through. He is the biggest strength and asset of the film. But I still say here that maybe an unknown and complete actor would have suited the film even better.
However, the other characters leave a lot to be desired both in their fleshing out and performances barring Divya Dutta, who though type-cast, is her usual brilliant self, Japtej Singh, who is wonderful as a young Milka, and Pavan Malhotra, who efficiently lifts every scene he comes in. Yograj Singh is more correctly cast and while he looks the role, his acting still leaves something to be desired. Sonam Kapoor reaffirms yet again what an embarrassment she is as a performer, while KK Raina is wasted and Dalip Tahil also fails to make an impact as Nehru. Art Malik is a disaster as Milkha's family's patriarchal head and none of the other characters (or performers) really leave a mark.
Technically though, the film is polished. The camerawork by Binod Pradhan lifts it a notch as it is thanks to him, the film comes closest to being the epic, it so desires itself to be. Yet, you still feel the camera could have let go in its more raw moments as even the slaughter sequences or Milkha sliding across dead bodies is made to look beautiful. In terms of production design the film is extremely well-mounted but it has to be said, none of the Aussie girls in Melbourne look out of the 1950s. Incidentally, the Boeing 707 made its first commercial flight in 1958, so how come Milka and co flew in it to Melbourne in 1956? Test flight??? And more importantly, factually, Milkha Singh never held the world record at any time for the 400 metres. The editing is loose, but I think here the editor was hampered with the way the scenes were shot. Shankar- Ehsaan - Loy make a return to form and amongst the songs, Zinda truly stands out. The background score and sound design is appropriate to the film.
By now, the film has made enough of an impact at the multiplexes and is garnering an enthusiastic response from audiences and I suppose that if one takes it as a Bollywood film posing as a saga about a (any) young man who became a champion athlete of India, it might satisfy one but if taken as a true, sensitive and in-depth bio-pic of one of India's sporting legends, then, sadly, it does not.