Farhan Akhar struggles to sprint in slow motion, a waterfall of sweat dribbling down his face, his eyes blood red, his mouth grimacing in agony, his thighs straining due to the wounds on his feet, the bleeding bandages on his limbs dramatically unwrapping and falling off to the backdrop of loud, melodramatic music. Farhan struggles to sprint in slow motion, a huge rubber tyre is attached to his waist, he falls to the ground as dry sand swathes his contorted face and Arif Lohar’s voice booms at speaker shattering levels. Farhan sprints histrionically in slow motion on the tracks of France, Nairobi, Ohio, Helsinki as a patriotic song roars through the speakers, assaulting the ear drums like a baseball bat on the groin. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is one of, if not the most manipulative film ever made in the history of Bollywood.
Shooting for inspiring, director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra only delivers the exaggerated and devolves the plot into a tangle of ditsy overwrought scenarios in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. And at three hours and ten minutes, the film is as bloated as its protagonist’s pectoral muscles and as emotionally resonant as Sunny Deol’s boxing matches in Apne. If the filmmakers hope to render Milkha Singh the respect that he deserves, they’re going to need movies a lot better than Bhaag Milkha Bhaag to do it. Prasoon Joshi is a gifted writer but a strong director would have been of utility here because ROM here seems to have been preoccupied with only staging mawkish over the top sepia toned flashbacks. Though some of the cinematography is stunning, and practicing gymnasts and torso enthusiasts will love Farhan’s exceptional physique, it's neither riveting entertainment nor smart filmmaking for the rest of us.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag calls itself a biopic but it never stops feeling like an exaggerated yarn – the creative liberties taken are just ridiculous and expecting anything factually correct goes out the window when Farhan starts singing a country western style Hindi song at a Melbourne bar with an Australian girl. It’s not that obfuscating facts is always bad filmmaking – A Beautiful Mind was a well made film despite paying zero attention to John Nash’s real life. But unlike that film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is shabbily filmed and poorly acted, its lone positive is a thoroughly awful performance by Dilip Tahil whose hamming caricature of Pandit Nehru is the most unintentionally hilarious turn you’ll see this year. Despite Farhan’s charming screen presence and admittedly impressive dedication it's a losing battle with a plot this clichéd, a script this underwhelming and truly woeful direction that makes you yearn for the assured hand of Shimit Amin.
The biggest problem is the filmmakers mistake contrivance for construction every time the plot shifts to Milkha’s childhood in the 1940’s. The segments between Milkha and his sister (Divya Dutta) become quite comical after a while – a scene where they reunite after the partition makes you wonder why in 2013 Bollywood still makes films like Gadar. It's understandable that the filmmakers want to highlight Milkha’s harrowing past, but overblown exposition and keeping the most obvious event as a suspenseful plot point isn’t the only way to construct a gripping and moving narrative. The reliance on manipulative emotional wrangling was the case with Rang De Basanti as well but at least that film had good music and acting to conceal its gluey side. In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag literally every single dramatic turn is given the 80’s Bollywood and 2000’s desi soap opera treatment to wrench emotion out of you. Every time a character appears on screen to say something weighty, sappy piano keys begin playing. In fact the entire movie has the self-pitying Shehnai based background music from the parody scenes in 3 Idiots that feature Sharman Joshi’s parents. Adhering to the Bollywood formula of the predictable the film’s focal point is hinged towards a triumph at a competition against Pakistan, and there is Meesha Shafi cast in the worst, most tasteless possible role to embarrass our neighbors a tad further. Paired with the dull sports based storyline is an even duller romance between Farhan and Sonam Kapoor who, I can say with only a little irony that she plays an eye shadow and Revlon lipstick wearing small town girl in 1950’s India.
(First published in Firstpost)