The log line of any sports film is a run up to a startling finish. We’ve entered the theatre for that. A cheery climax, to triumph with the hero. There’s a formula that actually works for such films. Start the film with a defeat, end on a winning note. It’s fool proof. Now how do you stretch the film for over three long hours and yet keep us glued to our seats? You whip up a frenetic pace, and Milkha’s story has enough salve for the spirit.
Milkha runs back and forth between his past and present, trying to shape his destiny. There are sacrifices to be made, reconciliations to be made with self. He does everything it takes to make amends, and charter a course for himself that will make him the fastest man on earth. The film documents his life from early childhood during the partition era, his years as a rogue child (a brilliant child prodigy bouncing on hot sands) in a refugee camp to his winning streak at several international competitions including the Rome Olympics where he finishes late, dashing India’s chance for gold. His has been a chequered past, his family being massacred in post partition riots, his dying father’s last words being ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ which gives the film a resonance to side with the protagonist’s fight for survival, and of the fittest possible.
The film’s curious plot device of pre and post partition scenes overlap in a clear, prismatic hue of rich colours and tones which reflect the character’s journey; from a smoky, grim period of stealing coal from running trains to an overcast running track in Australia where he is training for his first international competition, there is a silver lining somewhere, it will appear when he makes a clean sweep.
Farhan Akhtar gives the protagonist a fit in body, and soul, imbuing his character with rigour of the finest steel. If you can get past the throw of his voice, which is as if he’s having to chew through his testes to express himself in a gruff manner, it isn’t working. The role extracts the best of his body, every muscle is rippling to show-off how hard he has trained for the film. That’s perhaps where the ‘star’ part of the package derives its clap-trap moments. Otherwise, if you look at runners from other countries taking their mark on track lanes, they look pale in comparison. There’s even a German sprinter, tall, and gaunt in appearance who nearly upstages Farhan in one of the key races. What gives? Let him be.
Sonam is Biro, a sylph, with brief, if somewhat necessary screen time, to underline Milkha’s yearning for love in those repressed times when he was a thief and her entry into his life gives him purpose to be more than just a local thug. Divya Dutta is a doting elder sister, and Pawan Malhotra as his first trainer are two fine actors who uplift the mood of the film with their earnest presence, at times, just being on-screen, without saying much, they enrich the frame by their dignified silence and being the protagonist’s moral compass to improve.
Prakash Raj, Yograj Singh as two robust taskmasters who discipline Milkha are aptly cast. Rebecca Breeds and Meesha Shafi as two romantic interests after Biro are ‘distractions’ Milkha cannot afford. Their minor parts help him grow, slightly hagiographic in resolution, something the filmmaker has cottoned on to, presenting a glowing picture instead of playing it down. And why not? How many sport heroes get a deserving biopic?
Binod Pradhan’s camera work is exceptional. Art Malik, Milkha’s father is filmed in a key scene as gory as a Game of Thrones sword slash, but what beauty! Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s music works even when its out of place. Two crowd-pleasing numbers, ‘Maston Ka Jhund’ and ‘Slow Motion Angreza’ did not have to be fancy foot work of its star performer Farhan, but they are, and if you cut that out, its actually not out of place in the film. Dosen’t hurt to swing a bit when you are trying to romance a ‘phoren’ chick, stripping down to your beach wear, showing of your magnificent ‘for this film abs’.
Interspersing the film with archival clips, a throwback to the Eadweard Muybridge, Horse in Motion composite of Milkha running is especially spectacular for film buffs. Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra makes a Hitchcockian cameo, albeit much sunny, when he appears to a troubled Milkha struggling with his first flight experience, wondering if the plane is going off-course and will hit a cloud-berg. In a masterstroke delivery, he tells Milkha not to panic, he is the captain of the flying ship.