American audiences are used to seeing biographies of famous people whose histories we already know: Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Robinson, etc. It’s delightful to come across a personal story that is totally fresh, at least to audiences outside of India. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a fine tribute to a man whose life deserves to be made into a movie.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag begins at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Milkha Singh (Farhan Akhtar) leads the field in the 400 meters until he turns to look behind him, a move inexplicable to those watching the race. He finishes the race in fourth place. Milkha subsequently turns down an opportunity to lead an Indian delegation to Pakistan to compete in a friendly race, despite being India’s most famous athlete.
Milkha’s coach from his Army days explains that his pupil turned down the offer not out of embarrassment for having lost the race. Rather, he blames Pakistan for the deaths of his parents thirteen years earlier, during the riots that followed partition. The last words young Milkha heard his father say were, “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag!” (“Run Milkha Run!”). Those were the same words his national team coach yelled during the Olympics that caused Milkha to turn, expecting to see the swordsman on horseback that he ran from as a boy.
The Army coach, Gurudev (Pawan Malhotra, who gives a touching performance), narrates Milkha’s history to his national team coach, Ranveer (Yograj Singh), and a government representative while on a train ride to Milkha’s home, where they hope to convince Milkha to change his mind and lead the Indian delegation to Pakistan. The significant events of Milkha’s life are told out of sequence, but flashbacks flow seamlessly from one time period to the next.
Though the film is primarily populated with male characters — Milkha’s friends, competitors, fellow soldiers, and coaches — women play a significant role in directing Milkha’s destiny. His decision to join the army is spurred by a desire to impress a young woman, Biro (Sonam Kapoor). At the time, the army supplied the athletes for the Indian Olympic team, so Biro’s part in getting Milkha into the military is critical. Kapoor and Akhtar share a sweet chemistry together.
It’s just as important to Milkha to make his older sister, Isri (Divya Dutta) proud, since she raised him following the deaths of their parents. Dutta is powerful in the film, particularly during a scene in which Isri and Milkha are reunited in a refuge camp.
A third female influence in Milkha’s life is Stella (Rebecca Breeds), an Australian woman he meets at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. The consequences of their brief fling lead Milkha to rededicate himself to his training, setting up an impressive time-lapse jump rope sequence that highlights the amazing physical transformation Akhtar underwent for his role. Breeds does a super job, and her scenes with Akhtar are incredibly sexy.
The trip to Australia is one of the few speed bumps in the film. The abrupt transition into the new setting is perhaps meant to emphasize how out of place Milkha feels in a foreign country, but it just feels clunky. A country-western style dance number in an Aussie bar is awkward, and the song isn’t very good either. It could’ve been cut from the film without being missed.
Other scenes that could’ve been cut feature a beautiful Indian Olympic swimmer named Perizaad (Meesha Shafi). While her role in Milkha’s real life may have been important, scenes of her flirting with Milkha don’t move the story forward.
Apart from a few unnecessary scenes, the film earns its 188 minute runtime. Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra paces the story well and includes some clever shots to pack in as much information as possible. For example, a closeup of a hand holding a stopwatch occupies the right half of the screen, while Milkha breaks through the finish line again and again. Each time, the stopwatch shows Milkha’s time improving.
Of course, the Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is nothing without Akhtar, and he is spectacular. His physical transformation is impressive, but more so is the way he adapts Milkha depending on the situation. He gives a complete picture of Milkha in his various roles: little brother, lover, soldier, champion. It’s a joy to watch.
By following some of the typical structure of sports movies, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is easily accessible to any audience, regardless of whether one has previously heard of Milkha Singh before or not. Here’s hoping international audiences give this film a chance. Milkha Singh is someone worth knowing.