Directed by: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra || Produced by: Rajiv Tandon, Raghav Bahl, Maitreyee Dasgupta, Madhav Roy Kapur, Rachvin Narula, Shyam P.S., Navmeet Singh, P. S. Bharathi
Screenplay by: Prasoon Joshi || Starring: Farhan Akhtar, Meesha Shafi, Pawan Malhotra, Japtej Singh, Divya Dutta, Yograj Singh, Art Malik, Prakash Raj, K. K. Raina, Rebecca Breeds, Dalip Tahil, Dev Gill, Sonam Kapoor
Music by: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy || Cinematography: Binod Pradhan || Edited by: P. S. Bharathi || Country: India || Language: Hindi, Punjabi
Running Time: 189 minutes
Sports dramas have never been considered a staple of Indian filmmaking, though in the past couple decades, the subgenre has gained steam. Aamir Khan’s new millennium historical epic, Lagaan (2001), melded its home country’s national obsession with cricket with its other national obsession, love-hating British colonialism, in one of the more recognizable international hits from Mumbai’s Hindi filmmaking stables. In more recent years, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) further expounded on the subcontinent’s cricket prowess, while another Aamir Khan-vehicle, Dangal (2016), about women’s wrestling, became the highest grossing Indian film of all time. The winds are changing for athletic dramas on the Indian silver screen.
Enter Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (English: Run Milkha Run), a biographical dramatization of Milkha Singh’s childhood and professional life. Singh, an Olympic track and field athlete and military veteran, possesses maybe the most readily cinematic upbringing of any athletic professional since Jake LaMotta, having been raised in Punjab during the 1947 partition of India and being orphaned at an early age. Though much of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag reads like a motion comic riff on a mythical life, it is to the movie’s visual and thematic benefit. Screenwriter Prasoon Joshi describes the film as, “… not a mirror of Milkha Singh’s life. It is an interpretation of his life.” This is a tasteful way of admitting substantial artistic, if not stylistic liberties taken during the process of cinematic dramatization.
The strongest aspect of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (henceforth, BMB), aside from Farhan Akhtar’s committed lead performance, is its unabashed visual design; its distinct color correction, its stylized composite shots, restrained but notable musical sequences, and memorable location photography emphasize moving images over plentiful dialogue, raw emotion over political commentary, and deliberate story structure over episodic, slow-paced biopic formula.
To be sure, BMB is no brisk, fast-paced story (it spans over three hours), nor does it lack reverence for its real-life subject. BMB is a fine tuning and respectable execution of biopic formula rather than a subversion of such. This makes sense given its director’s (Rakesh Omprakash Mehra) recognizable cinematographic style yet inconsistent filmmography, including one of my least favorite and misguided political films of all time, Rang de Basanti (2006). Joshi, also a credited screenwriter on Basanti, writes a sensible rather than ridiculous story this time around, and Mehra executes deliberate yet effective melodrama as a result. BMB employs classical flashback structure whereby the majority of the film is told via characters recounting events of the main character’s life at or near the chronological end of the story. The primary arc of Milkha’s athletic career is balanced by additional flashbacks to his childhood in Punjab during the Partition, which inform major revelations of the character’s psyche, insecurities, and emotional growth.
This deliberate screenplay structure and patient editing are a major strength of BMB. Mehra’s direction is arguably the film’s most consistent aspect, but at over in three hours in length, even the flashiest, most charismatic cinematography grows dull. BMB shifting between current-day (in the film’s diegesis) scenes dominated by dialogue to Milkha’s melodramatic athletic career to the highly stylized portions depicting his childhood keeps things fresh. A single viewing of BMB is exhausting, all things considered, but the film’s multi-tiered narrative and cinematography add depth to the experience, rather than bloat. It’s not quite the smooth engine that Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots (2009) was, but that’s a high bar for any three-hour film to meet.
Another constant positive throughout is Akhtar’s aforementioned strong lead. The titular role requires considerable range and physical dedication, both of which Akhtar fulfills. Much of his performance is nonverbal and dependent on subtle expressions, conveying a tortured personal history that is fleshed out during his childhood sequences. While the remainder of the film’s cast, including and especially his various love interests, are nothing to write home about, Akhtar’s critical starring performance maintains a human face throughout this larger than life tale.
Speaking of its supporting cast, BMB’s main weakness is just that. The film lacks charisma beyond Akhtar’s lead and Mehra’s dynamic visuals, which is disappointing given the sheer screen-time allotted to various minor characters whose names or faces you’ll struggle to remember as soon as the credits roll. Highest on the movie’s list of missed opportunities are Yograj Singh and Pavan Maholtra as Akhtar’s coaches, both of whom should’ve had their roles reduced, if not merged, given their impact on the story. In terms of narrative significance, brief love interests Sonam Kapoor and Rebecca Breeds are not forgettable, but as far as characterizations or performances unto themselves, they are lacking. Perhaps the greatest aspect of Kapoor’s character is how she is dismissed off-screen, emphasizing the transient nature of Akhtar’s romantic life compared to his professional athletic one.
In the broader scheme of things, that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag remains a much better than average biopic even at over three hours in length is a tremendous feat. I can’t recall all the many long, drawn out, poorly paced Hollywood Oscar-bait biopics I’ve sat through over the years, yet Bhaag is a great deal better than most of them. In terms of both “inspirational thematic content” and sheer entertainment value, Rakesh Mehra’s emotional biopic delivers far more often than not, and justifies its arduous melodrama. The film is indicative of Bollywood’s diversifying catalog of genre films, which, unlike its American superhero mimicry, fits Indian filmmaking’s inherent strengths and cultural staples. It’s no prize stallion, but it sure is a memorable one, and one worth watching.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag doesn’t bust the worst of biopic cliches so much as it wrestles them under control over an immense but well paced running time. It’s hard for a film to falter when its direction, screenplay, and leading face work so well in tandem, and that’s what makes this mammoth sports drama tick. Even if you’re not into track and field, South Asian politics, or Sikhism, you’ll get into this.
— However… the movie’s larger than expected supporting cast is weak, while its romantic female characters are not so much misused as they are missed opportunities.
—> Bhaa Milkha Bhaag comes RECOMMENDED, nonetheless.
? So, do “weak legs” apply in track and field as they do in boxing? Is this an urban myth that’s been officially disproved, yet?