Here’s the good news: I watched Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, one of Bollywood’s most anticipated releases of 2013, starring Farhan Akhtar as the
only legendary Indian athlete Milkha Singh. By the time the film ended, I’m happy to report I hadn’t hit menopause although I do think they should give anti-aging creams and hair dye with the ticket. The film is that long and feels longer. I think if I’d started training at the point when the opening credits began, I’d probably have become a halfway decent track and field sprinter by the time Bhaag Milkha Bhaag finished. As it happened, I bought myself a chicken and cheese roll and a big tub of popcorn, so now director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra can consider himself responsible for Akhtar’s Ken-doll torso and the additional layer of chicken, cheese and popcorn on my paunch.
I’d attempt to review the film if it wasn’t for the fact that the all the action in the film is actually in the trailer.
So the meat of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is 3 minutes 28 seconds. The other 185 minutes are basically a few rubbish songs, many slow-mo sequences, and the director straining to provide evidence that he has watched
a) James Bond movies — as a result of which young, pre-athletics Milkha scampers about atop a train
b) Forrest Gump — Bhaag Milkha Bhaag translates to “Run, Milkha Run.” Who can forget “Run, Forrest Run!“? Though it has to be said, the effect is startling different when instead of a cute little blonde girl telling little boy to run from bullies, a one-legged Art Malik (near-smothered by a beard) hollers “Bhaag Milkha, bhaag!” before having his head lopped off.
c) Inception — taking a tip from Christopher Nolan who layered dreams in Inception, the director and scriptwriter of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag use flashbacks in a similar fashion. So there’s a present in which one dude is shown reminiscing about another dude. Dude no. 2 frequently has a flashback within this flashback and a flashback within that too. Take that and put it in your multi-layered dream.
d) 300 — which is possibly why Milkha does a lot of roaring. You know he wants to yell “This is Sparta!” but it’s actually Ladakh, he just roars. The truly visible effect of 300 is in the sequences that show Milkha’s village during the Partition of 1947.
e) Lord of the Rings — consequently, I have learnt that apparently, there were Nazgul going through the villages of Punjab in the Partition days. Snorting horses: check. Billowing black robes: check. Menacing soundtrack: check. Bigass swords: check. Causing massive, mindless damage to pastoral countryside: check. Tolkien saw them as henchmen of Sauron, but actually they were Pakistan chappies roaming the newly-created Pakistan’s countryside, slaughtering non-Muslims indiscriminately. Much like Frodo, Milkha is also haunted by his memory of them.
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and scriptwriter Prasoon Joshi have also obviously seen their share of bad Bollywood because, given the preponderance of melodrama and cliché. The Pakistanis are evil, Milkha’s sister exists only to blubber (seriously. Every. Bloody. Time. the woman is on screen, she bursts into tears), Army personnel are gruff, etc. etc.
The one film that perhaps would have been educational would have been Chariots of Fire, but judging from what we see of athletic training, that was clearly not on the director or scriptwriter’s agenda. But then again, Chariots of Fire is a fact-based story, which is what Bhaag Milkha Bhaag purports to be even though it is actually on its own planet. A planet where sprinters have legs as slender as those of a plucked chicken, and a hulking set of shoulders and pectorals. Because it’s your shoulders that you use the most when you’re running. In this Bhaag Milkha Bhaag planet, sprinters drag tyres behind them while running around Ladakh, of all places, and this is what passes for training. Here an athlete’s proficiency is evaluated by the amount he sweats — when he’s an amateur, Milkha wrings his shirt and the sweat fills a mug. When he’s a professional, his sweat fills a fire bucket. It’s as though he’s training for a hot yoga championship instead of track and field contests. There’s a bit in the film in which the camera closes in on this sweat-filled fire bucket and we see ripples, waves, dancing droplets. I’m not sure what emotion this was supposed to evoke in me. Personally I felt vaguely nauseous and deeply thankful this wasn’t 3D. I’m full of admiration for sportspeople, but that doesn’t mean I want even the illusion of their sweat being sprinkled upon me, regardless of how hard the cinematography may be working to make the sweat look pretty. Just imagine: The director goes to his cinematographer and says, “I want a close up of the sweat. Make it look poetic.” So it is that a cameraman known for making people and places look breathtakingly lovely must now tap into decades of experience in order to zoom in on a bucket filled with vaguely brownish water.
Here’s the thing: nonsense melodrama and maudlin poeticism do not improve a story. They kill it. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has a perfectly decent plot: a boy with an idyllic childhood survives the horrors of Partition and against all odds ends up to be a brilliant athlete. Like all films about underdogs and sport, there’s a sense of feelgood and triumph at the end of the film, but if Bhaag Milkha Bhaag wasn’t so obsessed with being an ode, it would have been about half the duration — how ironic that a sprinter’s life moves slower than a drugged slug — and had at least double the impact.
Possibly because my brain felt it had do something, anything to prevent being reduced to slush while watching this film, I found my attention wandering to a column that came out today in the usually sensible Indian Express. Pratap Bhanu Mehta is an Indian academic and his article in the paper today was “a story of destructive governance and citizens who did not speak out”. In it, he lists the failures of the present Indian government, which is led by a coalition that calls itself the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Mehta’s article has been idiotically interpreted by some as being an endorsement for BJP, the Hindu-chest-beating, Right-wing opposition. (Never mind that he writes, “They [the UPA] matched BJP’s communal politicisation of terrorism at every step and then some.”) It is, however, not an analysis or critique as much as a Bollywood-worthy wail. Just like in the case of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag‘s script, Mehta had a pretty solid set of facts but chose to rely upon rubbish rhetoric and so there is a refrain in his ballad: “We did not speak out.”
Except we did. Whatever the Indian public may or may not have done in UPA’s term, it certainly did do its best to be heard. We’ve had public demonstrations that have ranged from turning out in thousands to support the likes of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal to crowds facing water cannons in the heart of Delhi. Parliament has barely been in session because of the Opposition’s protests against government decisions and policy. (That may not be particularly constructive, but it certainly isn’t silent acceptance of the UPA.) Anonymous hackers have taken down websites in an attempt to articulate resistance to the government’s efforts to curtail freedom of expression on the internet. The English media’s bread and butter for the past few years has been criticising the government. Citizen journalism became a ‘thing’ during and thanks to the UPA government. Social media’s potential in India, bubbling as it is with opinions both half-baked and perfectly grilled, was finally glimpsed because of the highly-charged political opinions voiced on these platforms. If you think about it, the Indian public hasn’t been this politicised and vocal in ages.
So who precisely didn’t speak out? Except that sounds more like a Baha Men song and isn’t poetic. Mehta’s refrain, on the other hand, is shrill and buttressed with hollow drama, much like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. And that is (apparently) our definition of poignant and insightful.
How reassuring that both academia and Bollywood are struck by the same affliction.