Cast: Farhan Akhtar, Sonam Kapoor, Divya Dutt, Pawan Malhotra, Prakash Raj
Direction: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
They called him The Flying Sikh – the man who, besides being the only Indian to win an individual athletics goal at the Commonwealth Games, represented India in the finals of the 400 meters Olympics in Rome, finishing fourth.
The story of an athlete from a non-athletic nation capturing the global imagination makes Milkha Singh a ripe subject for a biopic – and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra does full justice, producing a slow-burn film that lays out its story with style and flourish.
Much of the story is in flash-back mode; there is much back and forth in the narrative. But Mehra’s control on his craft is so immaculate that the film never descends into incoherence, and the viewer is never lost; to this sure-footed narrative the director adds high craft as he plays with hues and with camera angles to enhance his tale. Thus, the tale of the athlete’s troubled early years is told in gentle sepia; warm earth tones however suffuse the tales of his sporting triumphs and his romance.
The challenge, in telling a sports story, is to make the viewer feel the sweat, the strain, the effort – and Mehra accomplishes this through his use of close-ups and low-angle shots to bring alive the blood, sweat and tears, to dramatize the agony of training to become a world-class athlete.
Some of the directorial devices are reminiscent of Mehra’s earlier work in ‘Rang De Basanti’ (2006), in particular the changing hues, the back-and-forth narrative and great characterization. As Milkha makes it to the finish line in the climax, he looks at his younger self running alongside him – very much like the last scene from ‘Rang De Basanti’. And that is not to suggest the director is merely repeating himself – it is, more, a case of a craftsman sure of his tools, and confident of picking and using the right one at the right moment, much like a sculptor relying on a favorite chisel he likes the balance of.
The screen belongs to Farhan Akhtar, and he essays his role with complete sincerity. It is a complex character, requiring Akthar to be ambitious, conflicted, fun, romantic and emotional, sometimes all at once. Akthar doesn’t play the part – he inhabits it, and his brilliance lies in how at home he seems to be in the role. At times – not often – a great actor in a great biopic dons a role so completely, so confidently, that ever after, it is the image of the actor that comes to mind when he thinks of the original character (like Ben Kingsley coming to mind when we think of Gandhi, for instance). For those who watch Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the name of Milkha Singh will be inextricably linked to the visual image of Akthar, every nerve straining, flying down the track in an agony of endeavor.
The lead actor receives great support from the likes of Divya Dutt, Pawan Malhotra and Prakash Raj, whose top-notch performances enhance that of Akthar himself. In fact, the casting of this film is one of its strengths, with care being taken on even the smallest roles – such as the parts played by Milkha’s squeaky-voiced friend, and his Pakistani opponent.
The film may belong to Akthar, but in the final analysis it is the work of a director in complete control of his material, and his craft. Mehra has helmed ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ into a compelling story and an exemplar of cinematic brilliance; that it is also an inspiring tale almost seems to be a by-product.
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