This is a story of a man who did not win a medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
This is a story of a man who did not marry the girl he loved.
This is a story of a man who did not give up hope.
It is 1950s India. The task of nation-building is ongoing. Sincerity is still cool. Feet-touching is encouraged. Milkha Singh recommends Hard Work, Willpower, and Dedication. His coach, Gurudev Singh intones: “Nothing is more Sacred than your Duty to the country.” His leader, Jawahar Lal Nehru cajoles: “Your Team Needs You Now.” Little Milkhu has become Milkha, and Milkha has become India, and the Sky is the Limit.
Be prepared to shed your ironic distance. It is impossible to remain snarky when so much SINCERITY is in the air, the beloved Indian tricolor is fluttering, and the hopes of a fledgling nation rest on Milkha Singh’s running speed. (No hint of doping scandals for decades to come.) Fueled by milk, pure ghee and national pride, Milkha Singh’s eyes shine with patriotic zeal, his fate shared by the whole nation.
Farhaan Akhtar, bubbling with earnestness and rippling with muscles, animates Milkha Singh’s character with all the ‘ahojees,’ of a Punjab da puttar (son of Punjab). His stoic, old-fashioned, salt-of-the-earth simplicity exemplifies that first generation of Indians, for whom the birth of a nation came at an enormous psychic price.
The price has been paid, Milkha Singh’s story tells us. Wounds must heal. Don’t look back. The nation cannot dwell on the traumas of the Partition. In an emotional scene, we see a somber Milkha Singh return to the village where his nightmarish past awaits him, and we see him make his own peace.
Other characters shine. Pavan Malhotra as coach Gurudev Singh salutes his former student as a superior and a star, but Milkha’s humility takes away any sting. Familiar Bollywood tropes include scenes of the fauji (soldier) returning home on his leave bearing gifts for the family members, and again, the heartfelt decency of the man shines through. Brief courtships remain inconsequential; love sacrificed for the sake of glory.
Is sincerity the secret sauce? This Bollywood film on the life of ‘The Flying Sikh’ is inspired and alive, a marked contrast to the jaded sequels Hollywood has been pushing this summer. BMB’s cinematography is commendable, with some exuberant montages of Milkha Singh’s victories – Helsinki, Nairobi, Oslo, among others. There is archival footage on Milkha’s life. There is happy music that gladdens our hearts when he wins, and sad music signaling an impending loss.
The film effectively evokes a bygone period. An Eagle flask with tea in a railway compartment might easily transport you to a different era, and beloved historical figures smile benignly in the film. The indignities of the refugee camp, too, are all too realistic, and we see glimmers of the determination and pluck that will characterize Milkha’s adult career.
But the best scene is that of Milkha Singh smiling at a younger version of himself, who looks worshipfully back at his hero.
Too many of sports heroes in our midst have proven unworthy of our adulation. The Lance Armstrongs and Tiger Woods of contemporary disgrace seem severely lacking in, well, sincerity.
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio
A nation turns its lonely eyes on you.
BHAAG MILKHA BHAAG. Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Players: Farhan Akhtar, Sonam Kapoor, Divya Dutta, Yograj Singh, Pawan Malhotra, Rebecca Breeds, Art Malik, Meesha Shafi, Dalip Tahil. Produced by: Viacom 18, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
This article was written by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain and edited by Editor Jaya Padmanabhan.