One can well imagine the huge wave of disappointment that would have assailed the nation when, at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the legendary Milkha Singh missed a medal in a photo-finish.
Over half a century later, the overstuffed cinematic re-enactment of that 400 metres race and the historical and biographical events leading up to it is no less of a downer.
The much anticipated Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is anything but the film that Milkha Singh deserves.
His was an unbelievable dregs-to-glory story. Milkha was a Partition refugee who lost his parents in the riots.
He discovered his métier after years of struggle. His sturdy spirit, forged in the fire of life, found expression on the athletics track in ways that remain unparalleled in India to this day.
Shouldn’t bringing this inherently dramatic tale have been a cakewalk for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra? He makes rough weather of it. He just about breasts the tape but doesn’t do so quickly enough to be deserving of a medal.
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.
The film opens with the defining Olympic moment of Milkha Singh’s career – the heartbreak of the Rome race that assured him immortality.
The screenplay attributes the fourth-place finish to the memories of the harrowing Partition violence that haunted the lonely runner who was raised by a spirited elder sister. The latter helped him keep his head above the water even though her own life was a constant battle for survival.
The cinematography (Binod Pradhan) is outstanding and Bhaag Milkha Singh abounds in striking visual compositions.
We watch Farhan Akhtar as Milkha Singh run many pulsating races, breaking the pain barrier on one occasion after an envious rival at 1 EME Centre Secunderabad seeks to render him hors de combat by inflicting deep gashes on his feet and legs with the spikes of a running shoe.
The focus of the film is understandably on Milkha Singh’s mental and physical prowess. When he trains, he wrings his vest into a tiny mug and then, as the challenges get bigger and more daunting, he repeats the act with greater emphasis. The receptacle this time around is a bucket.
In another sequence, in order to save two cans of ghee from a bribe-seeking cop, he polishes them off in a jiffy, doing push-ups while he is at it. A bunch of bystanders applaud him lustily as he offers the empty cans to the befuddled policeman.
That isn't the film’s only attempt at humour. At a bash to welcome the Indian contingent to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, an Australian girl asks the star athlete: “Are you relaxing?” His reply: “Nahin jee, I’m Milkha Singh”. Stale.
The runner’s failure to qualify for the 400 metres final in Melbourne is blamed on a beer binge and a one-night stand with a near-stranger he befriends in a pub (Rebecca Breeds).
That little bit is certainly unusual: Indian icons, living or dead, are normally not supposed to suffer from human frailties.
Instead of presenting Milkha Singh as the sporting hero that he was for a newly-independent nation seeking its place in the world, the film positions him as an emblem of nationalistic fervour when he is pitted him against Pakistan’s Abdul Khaliq, who was regarded at the height of his career as the fastest man in Asia.
Jawaharlal Nehru (played somewhat blandly by Dalip Tahil) even declares a national holiday when Mikha wins a gold medal the 1958 Cardiff Commonwealth Games.
It is a pity that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, despite being about the life and career of one of India’s greatest sporting achievers, never makes for the kind of compelling viewing that it would have been had it relied solely on the drama inherent in the hero’s singular struggle against all odds instead of overlaying it with extraneous narrative trappings.
That is not to say that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag isn’t a competently made film. It is the high pitch of the narrative that is often distractingly raspy.
Akhtar, on his part, puts his best foot forward. The lead actor is well supported by Prakash Raj (as a no-nonsense military man), Pavan Malhotra (as Gurdev Singh, the army coach who groomed Milkha), Yograj Singh (as the national athletics coach) and Divya Dutta (as Milkha’s sister).
However, neither Art Malik (as Milkha’s father, Sampooran Singh), Sonam Kapoor (as Milkha’s first love, Biro) and Meesha Shafi (as swimmer Perizaad) have much to do.
To describe it in athletics terms, Bhaag Milkha Singh is a 400 metres sprint that feels like a cross-country race. Go for it only if you trust your endurance threshold.