Saturday, July 20, 2013
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag
Some lives are made for the big screen. Milkha Singh's certainly is one. It has everything. Pain of losing a family, the backdrop of partition, the determination to win the one you love and a dream. Throw it all together with the added drama of India vs Pakistan and you have one of the most neglected sports stories of the century. You wonder why no one has made a film on this living legend. With an eye to authenticity, the director transports you back a few decades into past with superb period reconstruction. Even if you have no interest in sports and have never switched to a sports channel, this film will draw you in and has enough to keep you interested. Mehra has managed to draw meaty performances from all his actors, including the child actor who plays young Milkha. But the magic of the film lies in the simple moments. Like the new army recruits dancing in their barracks, the village gathering to hear the race on the radio, Milkha's fascination for wearing the official India blazers. Mehra also packs in emotional resonance with the brother-sister portions. Milkha runs the race despite the injury, or when he meets his sister in his India jacket.The film is good but Farhan Akhtar is exceptional. He gets all the nuances right. There are those awkward moments at times but that adds to the charm. Farhan dominates almost every frame in the film and dazzles in each one. Pawan Malhotra is brilliant as the Sikh army officer. Divya Dutta is commendable as always. Sonam Kapoor has little to do in her special appearance except be the perfect warm counterpart to Milkha. The songs and the background scrore is bang on. Finally, Mehra proves that it is possible to make a good biopic while the events that transpired are still relevant and the characters involved are still alive.
Shooting for inspiring, director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra delivers the exaggerated and devolves the plot into a tangle of ditsy overwrought scenarios in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. And at three hours and ten minutes, the film is as bloated as its protagonist’s pectoral muscles and as emotionally resonant as Sunny Deol’s boxing matches in Apne. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag calls itself a biopic but it never stops feeling like an exaggerated yarn — the creative liberties taken are just ridiculous and expecting anything factually correct goes out the window when Akhtar as Milkha Singh starts singing a country western style Hindi song at a Melbourne bar with an Australian girl.
It’s not that obfuscating facts is always bad filmmaking — A Beautiful Mind was a well-made film despite paying zero attention to John Nash’s real life. But unlike that film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is shabbily filmed and poorly acted, its lone positive is a thoroughly awful performance by Dilip Tahil whose hamming caricature of Pandit Nehru is the most unintentionally hilarious turn you’ll see this year. Despite Akhtar’s charming screen presence and admittedly impressive dedication, it’s a losing battle with a plot this clichéd, a script this underwhelming and truly woeful direction that makes you yearn for the assured hand of Shimit Amin.
The biggest problem is the filmmaker mistakes construction for contrivance every time the plot shifts to Milkha’s childhood in the 1940s. The segments between Milkha and his sister (Divya Dutta) become quite comical after a while — a scene where they reunite after the partition makes you wonder why in 2013 Bollywood still makes films like Gadar. Paired with the dull, sports-based storyline is an even duller romance between Akhtar and Sonam Kapoor.
The flashback of the story shows a Sikh boy growing up in Multan. He moves to Delhi after Partition with his sister. He steals cola to make a living. Here, he falls for Bira, who lives in a refugee colony in Shahdara and makes up his mind to win her, and is enlisted. Here begins his race. First for the greed of an extra glass of milk and escaping parade, then to wear the India blazer and subsequently to have the world at his feet for running. This race comes to an important turn in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where he is unable to survive in the first round of the 400m sprint. He understands that the race is not as simple as it seems.
Then comes the drive, which he lives with and four years later, he reaches 1960 Rome Olympics after winning the Asiad and Commonwealth Games among many other championships, and all eyes are on him. After all, he holds the world record. But here amid the noise of that evening, he turns around and loses. But life does not end at the loss. Milkha overcomes this fear in a race in Pakistan.
The film is 3 hours 7 minutes long. At first, one wonders how it will pass. The first half could have been tightened but perhaps the filmmaker's stubbornness becomes evident.
At the centre of it all of course is Farhan Akhtar, 39-year-old movie polymath, in Milkha’s long hair, beard and buck tooth, fast and fit, sweating it out on dusty and synthetic tracks, convincingly clocking the same speed that you would expect from a passionate, professional athlete. The number of establishing shots where he fills up the frame confirm that the filmmakers are as much in awe of his appearance as the audiences ought to be.
Ever since his last film as director (Don 2, 2011), Akhtar had been training for months to fit into the Flying Sikh’s spikes. His is obviously more a ripped ‘gym body’ rather than the less contoured physique of an athlete from an endurance sport. Still, this transformation should be an inspiration for his peers – just as it is for the viewers. Rarely do we see Indian actors even attempt to immerse themselves so completely into a role. Hardly are there characters that warrant such tough makeover.
Unlike Gandhi, this film doesn’t end at where it starts from. The tragedy of the beginning is only a precursor to a series of calamities that follow Milkha’s life: whether it’s the loss of his parents to Partition, poverty at an early age, waywardness during youth, his inability to find suitable love, or balance a healthy love-life with his career… If this story was linearly and simply told, in its impact or purpose, it could be a lot like Farhan Akhtar’s own Lakshya (2004), where a boy with an aimless, dysfunctional life finally finds a mission to channelise all his potential energies towards.
The movie is told through various fragments. Milkha’s early mentor (terrific Pavan Malhotra) narrates it. As we watch, Milkha re-imagines certain portions of his past himself, forming a chain of flashbacks within a flashback, making this neither, or both, a pure sports film—where an underdog, out of nowhere, climbs up the ladders of highly competitive global sports. And general human drama, where an orphaned boy, lost in a refugee camp, creates his own place in the world.
The two inter-related stories won’t help if all you wanted to know is: how or why was Milkha, despite all odds against him, the fastest Indian man ever, and no one since on an international stage has come even vaguely close. We needed to see it happen rather than be told that it did. He grew up as a knife wielding ruffian. We observe this interesting aspect of his life, he becomes an adult on a moving train, much like the boys from Slumdog Millionaire; and the significant portion is oddly done away with.
Unarguably, Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra is back in form after the higgledy-piggledy 'Delhi 6'. For sure 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag', his salute to an athlete, leaps out straight from the heart, which may skip several beats but cannot arrest the impact left by the three-hour-plus epic. Towards the mid-section, the dramaturgy goes all over the place like an amoeba, but returns to its concerns – to track its emotionally disturbed hero, from 1947 to ’60, the year when he turned 25.
And though Farhan Akhtar, the film’s eponymous hero, happens to be on the cusp of turning 40, miraculously that isn’t an impediment at all. The occasional actor is unconditionally stupendous. Here’s a tour de force performance, the most dazzlingly accomplished seen in years, if not decades.
Physically rigorous as well as interiorised, Akhtar’s portrayal brings us close to a man who cannot forget his past, with a single eloquent gesture. Note the resigned way he disconnects a 'phone call on being summoned to return to the stadium, for the sake of his nation’s honour in Pakistan. Here’s a quiet moment that explains his trauma, faced during the partition, succinctly.
Throughout, Prasoon Joshi’s script chronicles the athlete’s triumphs and failures. If it falters, it is in the excessively repetitive and melodramatic scenes recalling the tribulations faced by Milkha Singh, during his childhood - complete with Zanjeer-like images of a phantom killer on horseback. After a point, the graphic bloodbath goes out-of-sync with the rest of the film’s measured, reportorial style.
Also, the device of a lengthy flashback by the athlete’s first coach Guruji (Pawan Malhotra), in the course of a Delhi-Chandigarh rail journey, interrupts the plot’s fluidity. Moreover, the complicated flashback-within-a-flashback goes quite askew grammatically, compelling the viewer to carrom distractedly between differing time zones. And if one’s ears weren’t playing tricks, the throwaway use of the song "Nanha munna rahi hoon" seems to be a gaffe, since it featured in Mehboob Khan’s 'Son of India', released in 1962.
Are you relaxing? No, I am Milkha Singh. This is one of those legendary jokes that typifies a couple of things: Punjabi humour in all its quirky broadness, and the man who is supposed to have said it, the legendary athlete who broke records on national and international tracks, and became a byword for sporting excellence in India.
I've always thought the line was apocryphal. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's film, 'inspired by a true life' grounds the joke in a moment, and cements the tone of the film. Carefully skirting the tag of a bio-pic, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag manages to tell the story of Milkha Singh, as enacted by Farhan Akhtar, while giving us, tiresomely, all the familiar bells and whistles of a Bollywood entertainer with the naach-gaana, and the rona-dhona.
The story of Milkha Singh is inspirational, doubtless. And Mehra leaves, literally, not one stone unturned (and adds a few of his own, doubtless) in this three hour and some saga, which takes us from Milkha's childhood in then Punjab-now Pakistan, the trauma of Partition and being torn from his (Milkha's) family, his lawless youth, his joining the Indian Army and gaining respectability. And then learning the joys of running. For himself, and for the honour of his nation.
But the way the director tells it is much less inspiring. It's almost as if he needs to talk up his film in order to entice us to watch it. Why, you ask yourself, when you see a burst of sporting glory, the kind that becomes goose-flesh immortal every time someone refers to it even, does the director need to dress up his story so much that it nearly drowns? The face of a winner, at the end of a tough race, is such a win in itself. Is there any need to underline it, just in case we miss the point, with loud background music?
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 2 cementing 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.
The overlong Bhaag Milkha Bhaag seeks to achieve a dramatic heightening of the effect of a champion athlete’s rousing struggle to break free from the traumas of the past and turn adversity to opportunity.
In the bargain, it reduces the human saga to a loud, melodramatic and over-wrought tale that overstays its welcome. It is amply clear by the end of the three hours of the film’s running time that the song-and-dance Bollywood form does not lend itself to the simple dynamics of a sporting biopic. Scenarist Prasoon Joshi and producer-director Mehra attempt to squeeze every ounce of emotion out of the real-life Milkha story. Unfortunately, it is reality that seems to be the biggest casualty in this deeply flawed endeavour.
The everyday details of a sprinter’s life are imparted a fictional makeover, accompanied by a surfeit of songs, inspirational anthems and background music. This approach robs the story of its immediacy and turns it into a showy, overly theatrical movie.
No, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is not a boring biopic or a detail-obsessed docudrama on one of India’s greatest sporting legends. It is an old-fashioned Bollywood film that caters to mainstream Hindi audiences. It would be more accurate to call this a tribute film inspired by the life of Milkha Singh than refer to this as a history lesson. The film acknowledges this when it ends with a disclaimer: “Inspired by a true life”.
And yes, it’s a complete sell-out of a film. But no complaints there because the best way to honour a legend is to make a film that a majority of India would watch. In an idiom that they prefer, even if it means exaggeration, melodrama and creative liberties with the hero’s love life. And Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra deserves that artistic licence considering that Milkha did indeed face extreme struggle, rose from abject poverty and had to make peace with his painful past.
The film’s writer Prasoon Joshi admitted that the film is only an interpretation of his life and not a mirror of Milkha Singh’s life. Fair enough. Because this is a country that has traditionally consumed history through myths. And as the dramatic title screams: Expect no subtleties.
But the question is: why make it an indulgent, slow-paced 188-minute film if the idea is to make more people, especially the mobile phone obsessed youth, watch it? The film intends to be a leisurely told story during a train journey from Delhi to Chandigarh. Like the havaldar storyteller’s fondness for Milkha that makes him ramble on about his life, the makers too take the phrase ‘jog through memory lane’ a little too literally as they tell the story as a collection of anecdotes, incorporating some old jokes as well: “Are you relaxing?” “No, I am Milkha Singh”.
But within the idiom and mainstream sensibility chosen to tell this story, Bhaag Milka Bhaag gets most things right. The narrative stops at song, dance, romance, comedy and drama stations instead of racing to the finish line but the good news is that Farhan Akhtar makes all of it work with his sincerity and intensity. You only wish he stayed true to character and didn't sport a metrosexual chest.
Over an exhausting 3 hours and 7 minutes, the film, starring Farhan Akhtar as Milkha, details the athlete's journey from a boy displaced during Partition to his early years in a gang of petty thieves, followed by his recruitment in the Indian army from where he went on to become a sports hero. All this is revealed in a long flashback by Milkha's earliest coach, Gurudev Singh (an endearing Pavan Malhotra), during a train journey with Pandit Nehru's advisor, while pointing out why Milkha has turned down the Prime Minister's invitation to lead a sports delegation to Pakistan. (The explanation for that decision, painfully obvious to anyone with half a brain, is clumsily used as a suspenseful cliffhanger in the film).
There are moments of great pathos here, and an inspiring lesson on the importance of perseverance and hard work. But it all moves at a snail's pace, even as the drama of Milkha's rise on the race track is punctured routinely by too many songs, overlong romantic tracks, and the kind of 'commercial-movie trappings' that are counterproductive to a film of this nature.
Biopics, however panoramic in scope, usually boil down to a greatest-hits collection, and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, for all its sepia-toned flashbacks and terrific training sequences is no exception. It's a shame Mehra and screenwriter Prasoon Joshi adopt a manipulative, melodramatic approach to highlight Milkha's achievements and justify his failures. In the film's opening scene, a key moment in Milkha's professional career, he loses the lead in the 1960 Rome Olympics when he turns back, apparently because he was haunted by an image from his troubled past. In another scene, where Milkha wins an important race despite being badly injured, Mehra swells the score even as the bandages covering Milkha's wounds dramatically come off as he inches towards the finish line. And don't even get me started on the Gadar-esque finale in Pakistan, where Milkha must fulfill the dream of every Indian by beating a rival from our neighboring nation. Never before has slow motion and background music been so abused in a film!
The film is an intelligently disguised story of a man whom history cannot faze out easily. Milkha Singh’s life story has the right ingredients for a clever biopic which Prasoon Joshi and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra have executed with delectable imagination. At no point does the film scatter in terms of story or intention, steering close to the relevant facts. Mehra rightfully reuses his Rang De Basanti style of narration which works to enhance the film’s tempo by absorbing your attention into it even more.
The story’s melodrama is restricted, keeping the dramatic bits plain. It is painful to see the Partition sequences of the story which have been carried out remarkably. In a particular sequence, where the young Milkha Singh slips on a puddle of blood after his entire ‘pind’ has been wiped off is the most fearsome portrayal of wretchedness! The story’s tainted scenes weave the haunting air fantastically and yet the cherishable moments maintain the story’s sheen. A couple of scenes are beyond the dimensions of cinematic marvel and ooze innocence wrapped in simplistic story telling!
From the glee of getting his first India blazer to when he loses the qualifying match in Melbourne to when he breaks down crying the pent up tears of years , the story’s terrain is smartly packed with judicious amounts of highs and lows, making the film’s recipe flawless.