A biopic gets the Bollywood treatment in “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” (“Run Milkha Run”), which dramatizes the life of record-breaking Indian sprinter Milkha Singh, played by the talented Farhan Akhtar.
The movie begins in 1960 with Milkha’s failed attempt at securing a medal during the Rome Olympics. Despondent, he tries to withdraw from a government-orchestrated race in Pakistan. One of the organizers can’t comprehend why Milkha would quit, but the runner’s coach explains (complete with sorrowful music) that the young man has personal reasons. Naturally, the government official asks for further explanation. And, boy, does he get an answer.
There is a short version: As a child, Milkha’s family was killed in front of him after the 1947 partition landed his Sikh village on the Pakistani side of the border. But the coach weaves an epic tale instead, and his hyper-detoured response, full of tales of first love and youthful troublemaking, lasts about twice as long as it should.
Some of the stories offer a bit of comedy, a chance to stage a requisite Bollywood musical number or offer some insight into Milkha’s personality. There is a sweet subplot involving the beloved sister that raised him and some lively comic relief from his early days in the military (amusingly, the setting for the film’s most memorable song-and-dance number). The movie also spotlights the exuberant moment Milkha first discovered competitive running.
Like most Bollywood films, Milkha’s story is supposed to be a saga. But aside from a horrifying experience in childhood and some major triumphs on the track, much of the rest of his history feels like filler held together by a faulty framing device. Would Milkha’s coach really know so many details about the runner’s language-barrier-filled fling with an Australian girl during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics?
The film’s copious montages of training runs also tack on needless minutes to the film’s run time. While some offer the chance to insert music into the movie’s catchy soundtrack, there are only so many times the audience needs to see Milkha running in circles.
In Bollywood movies, there’s often an emphasis on more than the story, and filmmakers develop a keen sense for atmospherics. Along with some splendid music, director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra takes care with his shots, zooming in and using slow-motion to make a body traveling through a finish line, for example, look like art.
But with such an overlong film, those moments seem diluted. There are triumphs, both in front of and behind the camera, but they often get overshadowed by a story that tries to do too much.
Unrated. At AMC Loews Rio Cinemas 18,
Rave Cinemas Centreville 12 and UA Snowden Square Stadium 14. Contains sexual situations
and violence. In Hindi with English subtitles.