Biopics are different from regular cinema. In biopics, the director is tightly bound by the shackles of the story, facts and narration, and has very little space for experimentation. The only aspects of film-making he can play with are presentation and style. In case of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, there was the additional complexity involved with making a biopic on a well known sports-person. And hence, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s ode to one of India’s legendary national heroes should go down in history books as a commendable effort.
In order to understand the complexity involved in making a biopic on Milkha, it must be understood that he was not an orator like Lincoln (on whom a brilliant biopic was made last year by Spielberg), nor did he drive era defining events like the American civil war which help set the context immediately. While Lincoln had some brilliant dialogues and personal dilemmas to present, the story of Milkha Singh had to be a balanced emotional drama. Smart viewers who accuse the film of being too melodramatic must understand that any lesser drama would have affected Milkha’s character building in an adverse way. The cliched hip culture lovers, on the other hand, may find the film too boring and niche. Hence, and very unfortunately, the film is left with very limited target audience. Kudos to Prasoon Joshi and Mehra for fearlessly making such cinema.
Mehra’s strength as a director lies in cinematography, editing and his attention to details. Like his previous films, he does not fail to deliver – especially in the sequences where Milkha goes through rigorous training and competes in the various races around the world. Unlike the hockey matches of Chak De! India (Shimit Amim, 2007), each of Milkha’s race is shot differently and hence never become repetitive. In one of the races where Milkha sets national record after being badly injured, the other runners are not even shown. Even his win in the race becomes insignificant in-front of his rather stubborn willingness to excel. The long film’s flow is well handled through some well edited sequences of flashbacks and flash-forwards. The tone of the film also changes accordingly – from sepia to Godfatherish gray to bright colorful sequences – just to keep the audience engaged.
Depicting a national hero with his confusions and flaws is extremely difficult, especially in India. Mehra, in-spite of his brave efforts, unnecessarily attempts to justify Milkha’s failures during the Melbourne and Rome Olympics. Just showing things as they were would have served the purpose. A bad partition memory trying to create the ‘rosebud secret’ behind failure in Rome seems childish, and could have simply been avoided. Not every biographical drama should have a childhood secret that must get unraveled in the end. Also, unnecessary India vs Pakistan nationalism creeps in during the last 30 mins when the film takes a Gadarish turn.
Coming to cast and performances. Personally, it was difficult to accept Farhan Akhtar as Milkha Singh. To me, Farhan Akhtar is first and foremost a talented director and then an actor, singer, whatever. Accepting the deep expressive Farhan (as we have seen him in his previous films) as the emotionally driven stubborn and muscular Milkha was tough. However, objectively speaking, Farhan fits into the lead role like a glove! Milkha is brought to life by his charming performance, which will be remembered for ages. Special mention to Master Japtej Singh, who steals the show as young Milkha. Character building of Milkha during the first hour of the film manages to drive the rather long film. Divya Dutta as Milkha’s sister registers a strong presence through brilliant acting. A personal favorite Sonam Kapoor plays an eye candy as the extended Masakali from Delhi 6, and fails to do anything beyond giggling, walking and dancing around.
The film, since its release, has been compared to Paan Singh Tomar. Well, such comparison is unnecessary, simply because Paan Singh is not purely a sports drama (the sports part ends in the first half) and is based on a previously untold story. The intent of the two films are separate and their treatments are further different. So let’s just keep things there. Well, talking in terms of comparison, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has a little bit of Slumdog, a little bit of Masakali, Paan Singh, Gadar and even Lakshya in it. But it is the mere intent and delivery by the film-makers, attention to details, and Mr Akhtar’s sincere performance – that the film must be watched and remembered for.
P.S – Special thanks to Vidya for some valuable inputs