The Flying Sikh, Milkha Singh, is very much part of Indian folklore – the man who took a country still finding its feet as an independent nation to the brink of Olympic glory at the Rome Olympics in 1960.
But at that crucial point when his lead on the 400-metre track held up the promise of India finally bagging that elusive gold medal, he made the disastrous error of looking back.
Milkha Singh not only instantly slipped to fourth place that day but also dropped in the nation’s esteem by shattering millions of dreams.
Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s biopic appropriately opens at this very historic juncture, with burning effigies of the fallen hero setting the stage for a rather unconventional Bollywood experience.
The audience is instantly gripped with the promise of an extraordinary life story ready to unfold on screen.
Milkha a.k.a. Milkhu (Farhan Akhtar) flits between time and space – from an Army cantonment in Delhi to a village in Pakistan and eventually key athletic stadiums around the world. His incessant “bhaag” (running), from life to track, is a constant that strings the entire film about this legendary sprinter together.
The spectre of the brutal Partition of India in 1947 hangs above Milkha’s childhood like an enormous dark cloud and leads to a life of petty crime and street-fights, with his long-suffering sister Ishar (Divya Dutta) as the only solid familial rock in his life. His knack for speed manages to keep him a step ahead of the law until the love of alluringly beautiful Nirmal Kaur (Sonam Kapoor) spurs him on to the right track, quite literally.
He joins the Army where his craving for an extra glass of milk attracts him to the idea of running competitively for the first time in his life. Under the vigilant tutelage of “guruji” (Pavan Malhotra), we see a barefoot non-athlete transform into a dashing and well-toned young champion. But while that course of his life looks set for greatness, his romantic dream is abruptly cut short.
It sets him off on a single-minded pursuit of his goal of achieving the kind of success that would put him and his country on the world map. This charming young sardarji so passionate about his sport proves irresistible to young women but for Milkha, they are just another set of distractions that must be overcome.
Sheer will power, grit and determination take him from one milestone to the next, until the moment he is forced to face up to the biggest challenge of his life: a return to Pakistan – the country and the gory memories he ran away from all those years ago.
Between writer and lyricist Prasoon Joshi’s uncanny ability to tug at the heart strings with some extremely simple words and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s deft handling of a very complex subject matter, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag takes you through an entire gamut of emotions.
The laugh-out-loud sequence around Milkha’s first-ever plane journey stands out as a highlight of this overall endearing and heart-warming tale, which will make you cheer on Milkha the underdog and join him in shedding tears for his loved ones.
And, this rare connect with a character on screen is made possible by Farhan Akhtar’s exceptional performance in each and every frame. He not only embodies Milkha’s body but somehow seems to have found an affinity with his soul, as a result of which the real Milkha seamlessly blends with the on-screen version.
Akhtar, with his minutely etched deltoid muscles, will be an easy front-runner for every award on the 2013 Indian film circuit. The scene in which he stands before a mirror to slap himself several times in quick succession is reflective of the kind of dedication with which he must have prepared for one of his most challenging roles till date.
Among some of the other cast, Divya Dutta impresses with her characteristic restraint and Pavan Malhotra is a natural. Sonam Kapoor, though hardly around for too long, lights up the brief moments she gets alongside Akhtar.
British actor Art Malik, as Milkha’s father, looks visibly uncomfortable as he struggles with his Punjabi accent but works well as the looming figure in Milkha’s mind’s eye.
Little Japtej Singh deserves a special mention for his turn as the young Milkha for the ease with which he seems to fit right in with some veteran actors.
But like any true labour of love, this one is not minus its minor flaws. While the soundtrack is moving and strikes the right tone for the film, some of the numbers seem to only serve the purpose of adding to an already lengthy script. The film often teeters on the brink of falling into the classic Bollywood drag-trap.
However, Mehra’s nail-biting set-up of the last scene manages to rein things back in and the slight delay in getting us to the high point of this story is entirely forgivable.
This one looks set for box-office flight – like the Flying Sikh himself!
– Aditi Khanna
Aditi Khanna is the Editor of India Incorporated (www.indiaincorporated.com) and London Correspondent of the Press Trust of India.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag opens in cinemas on July 12.