When I realized Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was to release on 12 July, at the end of my India vacation, I decided I’d snatch the opportunity to see the film in cinema. There is a certain atmosphere that Bollywood films watched in Desi cinema halls generate - where else would you get ceetees, a child’s voice piping up occasionally to query, kyon roh raha hai?, samosas and cold drinks being delivered to folks mid-film, and of course, the inevitable Intermission. Suffice to say that the Hong Kong experience of movie-watching, even Bollywood films, is rather sanitized!
BMB is obviously a story of a champion athlete, the kind India has produced only once, and amazingly at a time in our newly-independent nation when infrastructure or facilities which could help generate such a feat were lacking. However, Milkha Singh is a great athlete, the greatest of his time - certifiably so in 1959 when he set the world record for 400 metre - and the film sets to explore this greatness: what made Milkha run? What is Milkha’s motivation or is it a compulsion? Is Milkha running for, or from, something?
By now many of you would have seen the movie and formed your perceptions. What worked for me most was the leitmotif of ‘Bhaag’ and how it was used throughout the movie to thread Milkha’s life and his achievements. The boy who was forced to flee his home during partition, abandon his family to communal killers, make his way to a refugee camp in Delhi, run for scraps of ration, run for that glass of milk and two eggs as a newly minted Jawaan of the Indian Army, run for the honour of donning the navy blue Indian blazer - ab Milkha ban gaya India, to overcome humiliation, to make his coach, Army and India proud, to be The best in the world. The movie opens with Milkha running in the Rome Olympics and losing, and ends with a shot of the young Milkha running in sync with the athlete Milkha and the two smile at each other. That distance between the two shots and the human journey in between is what BMB is all about.
The back and forth narrative technique works well as it unfolds the story within story of Milkha’s life. Prasoon Joshi is to be commended for a script that works to a large extent and for some truly inspiring lyrics, especially the theme song picturized to Milkha’s intensive training regimen. With a tyre tied to him the athlete trains in Ladakh’s sand strewn Nubra valley as the Punjabi singer Arif Lohar belts
Khol tu rakh ke pahiye khol
Bana ke chakkar Sudarshan bol
Jam ke feete kas ke baandh
Khuli hai aaj sher ki maang...
In a country deprived of sporting heroes, except for scam-tainted cricketing superstars, the story of its one true legend was long overdue. Kudos to Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra for this wonderfully moving portrait of the man each one of us had heard of while growing up but knew little about. Growing up in Punjab, studying in Chandigarh - where I sat next to him inside a shoe store once - I was mildly aware of his glory but it seemed overshadowed by the fact that he had missed the Olympics medal by a whisker. Milkha Singh’s story is in fact much bigger than that missed medal and the director has to be thanked for shaking off the dust and showcasing the true story, one of determination, discipline and tapasya.
Now that Farhan Akhtar has essayed Milkha, it is difficult to conceive of another actor in the role. The physical preparation that Akhtar undertook has been well documented but what impressed this Punjaban was the ease with which he portrayed small gestures - the lift of a shoulder, the enunciation of ‘Aaho‘, the Bhangra moves - that are intrinsically Punjabi by nature. Dil khush kar ditta, Farhan ji!
Japtej Singh as young Milkha is surely a discovery! The boy is effortlessly convincing and the scene where he returns home to discover the massacre of his family will stay with me for a long time - young Milkha clawing at his mother’s body even as the squelchy mud keeps pulling him back.
A personal plus for me was the fact that the film is shot in part in my hometown of Ferozepur which the director found was still stuck in time and thus could be used effectively for a period setting. Proximity to a border does not lend itself to development and yes, Ferozepur has seen little development but it was fun nonetheless to sit in the hall and gleefully point out to my daughter and hubby familiar locales from my district.
BMB is not without its flaws. The movie could have been edited to remove a couple of songs and the Australian episode of a gori girlfriend. Or that time could have been used to showcase some of the races that Milkha Singh won across the world, which are depicted in a flurry in the movie. Dilip Tahil as Pandit Nehru is a disappointment. However, BMB is a commercial film and the one thing it has done is draw in audiences - the box office is ringing and cinema halls are reporting whistles, applause and cheering!
Will BMB become The Chariots of Fire of India? Is it better than Chak De as a sporting story? Does it work as well as a Paan Singh Tomar as a bio-pic? Who knows? Better still, who cares? What’s important is how the movie makes us feel.
I left the cinema hall energized, moved and entertained. When I quizzed my daughter what she would take away from the movie she said: Persistence pays. Jeev Milkha Singh, the ace golfer, credits his father for drilling that same mantra into him.
In an age of instant gratification, it’s a good lesson to learn: Hard work and discipline will get you what you want.