By Mihir Fadnavis
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.
Akhtar 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. Akhtar sprints in slow motion on the tracks of France, Nairobi, Ohio, Helsinki, as "Saare jahaan se achchha" 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 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.
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 Akhtar as Milkha Singh 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 Akhtar'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 filmmaker mistakes construction for contrivance every time the plot shifts to Milkha’s childhood in the 1940s. 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. Paired with the dull, sports-based storyline is an even duller romance between Akhtar and Sonam Kapoor.
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 '80s' Bollywood and 2000s' desi soap opera treatment to wrench emotion out of you. Every time a character appears on screen to say something weighty, the piano begins tinkling. In fact, the entire movie has self-pitying shehnai based background music, like in the parody scenes from 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 role to embarrass our neighbours a tad further.
If the filmmaker's hope to render Milkha Singh the respect that he deserves, they’re going to need movies a lot better than Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Prasoon Joshi is a gifted writer, but a strong director would have been of utility here because Mehra 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 Akhtar's exceptional physique, it's neither riveting entertainment nor smart filmmaking for the rest of us.
Mihir Fadnavis is a film critic and certified movie geek who has consumed more movies than meals. He blogs at http://mihirfadnavis.blogspot.in
Disclaimer: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has been produced by Viacom18, a part of the Network18 group which also owns Firstpost.