Rakeysh Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is based on real life, legendary Indian athlete, Milkha Singh. This film portrays Singh’s sporting career and his emotional journey. In fact, what is made clear through the film is that both of these are entwined. What stands out is Milkha Singh’s perseverance and determination to win and be the best he can; as well as the journey that he takes to grapple and eventually make peace with what is a painful and traumatic past.
The film begins with Milkha Singh’s (Farhan Akhtar) Olympic race in Rome, 1960- a race that he had lost. Overnight, Singh falls from being the national sporting hero to becoming a national disappointment. The Indian public is shown to go so far as burning Singh’s images. When asked to compete in the India-Pakistan race, Milkha Singh initially refuses. It is not because of his defeat in Rome, but because of his past- the trauma and loss he suffered during Partition. His story is narrated by his coach to the prime minister of India, Nehru’s delegates in a train en route Chandigarh, to Milkha Singh’s home. As a child, Singh’s village fell on the Pakistani side of the border and came under fire of the fierce violence of Partition. He witnessed his father beheaded and he found his mother’s corpse amongst a heap of bodies. Traced is Milkha Singh’s journey from the point before Partition where he led a happy childhood, to the uprooting and destruction Partition caused for him, through to his sporting achievements and defeats and his romantic life. The film presents an important message on the Partition of India- that people are not bad. Circumstances are bad and that Partition was a bad time.
A strong point of the film is the incredible camera work. It seems that Mehra’s camera work symbolises deeper meanings and captures complicated emotions. For example, through the opening scene at the Olympics held in Rome, the viewer sees some figures obscured by the camera work until they get closer to the entrance of the Olympic field. Sporting a jacket reading ‘India’ in white letters, we finally see Milkha Singh clearly. The viewer gets a feeling of anticipation, of the obscurity symbolising the story finally unveiling. Another example is of how the camera pans around Milkha stood on the track, taking in the crowd, emphasising the enormousness of the event and gives a sense of feeling overwhelmed, perhaps portraying Milkha’s emotions. Mehra makes the film even more powerful by including real footage from the Olympics and newspaper clippings.
When Milkha Singh is triggered into recalling the past, the flash backs are in black and white or sepia colour. This creates a powerful feeling of memory, of emotion, of trying to unravel some questions. The flash backs are emphasised as being separate from the present, yet the immediate interchange between the child Milkha and the adult Milkha highlight that Milkha Singh has not, cannot leave the past behind. Milkha Singh eventually does find peace with his past, but only after he confronts it. The most beautiful and emotional scene I felt was when Milkha Singh is portrayed as running beside his child self at his victory in Pakistan: clearly symbolising that he has found himself again and can move on. This scene for me pinpoints that the story is not about a sportsman winning races. It represents what Rakeysh Mehra had meant when he stated in a BollySpice interview with Stacey Yount: ‘…he wins in life’.
Another strong point in the film is the outstanding performance Farhan Akhtar has given. Farhan Akhtar has completely stepped into the skin of his character. Not only does he completely look the spitting image of Milkha Singh, but Akhtar has successfully grasped the poignant emotions. Not only does he deliver through the heart wrenching emotional scenes but he also makes one smile and laugh through his wit and charm. Mehra’s direction during the scene showing Milkha Singh’s disappointment in himself after his defeat in Melbourne intensifies this poignant moment: set in a bathroom full of mirrors, Milkha Singh confronts himself. This film is about confronting one’s fears, one’s past and one’s skeletons. This also resonates through the black and white figure on a horse that continuously haunts Milkha Singh. Farhan Akhtar’s expression and body language through these moments makes them even more so spine tingling.
The child who plays Milkha Singh as a young boy gives a very strong performance. There is a transition in young Milkha Singh from the point he discovers his mother’s corpse and this child actor has portrayed the transition tremendously. From the happy go lucky, cheeky child to the displaced and traumatised child, young Milkha gives a breath taking performance.
Although Sonam Kapoor does not have much screen time, she makes her presence felt throughout the film. Playing the role of Milkha Singh’s first love, one cannot help but hope that the two are reunited. She looks beautiful and the romantic chemistry between the two is mesmerising. Sonam Kapoor appears in two of the songs, Mera Yaar and O Rangrez.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is comprised of eight songs: ‘Gurbani’, ‘Zinda’, ‘Mera Yaar’, ‘Maston ki Jhund’, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’, ‘Slow Motion Angreza’, ‘O Rangrez’. Every song belongs to the moment it represents perfectly. ‘Zinda’ portrays young Milkha fighing to survive and the rock style of the song reflects his anger and regeneration; ‘Slow Motion Angreza’ fits in with the Australian theme yet retains a Punjabi feel. The colourful cinematography of sufi inspired ‘Mera Yaar’ and ‘O Rangrez’ adds to the romantic, uplifting feel and capture the atmosphere of the village.
With a running length of over three hours, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag does seem long. However, do not let this put you off. Every race will have you at the edge of your seat. Every victory, every defeat that Milkha Singh undergoes will have you cheering him on. What this film is successful in doing is presenting Milkha Singh as human. His mistakes, his rise and his fall are what make him human- yet an inspiring and extraordinary human.