If movies were people, then Bhaag Milkha Bhaag would have been afflicted from bipolar disorder. What do you call a movie that so ingeniously constructs a mood – using all familiar tropes of the commercial mainstream Indian cinema – in the first half, but cruelly tramples everything in its second half?
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag opens to Milkha Singh losing in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Milkha Singh came fourth in that race. Losing is a word that’s often equated to shame, and one of the newspaper clippings also has a headline about how Milkha Singh let the country down by losing that race. There’s no denying that Milkha Singh ‘lost’ that race. But, there’s also no denying that, on that afternoon in Rome, Milkha Singh was also the fourth fastest runner on the planet. Most of us would be delirious with joy if we can be the fourth best in the country, in anything. We would be feted. Milkha Singh, the fourth fastest on the planet, shamed the country. Few things can be as unfair as sport.
The movie beautifully and slowly builds on to this: the sportsmen, that we see on our televisions or read about in newspapers, are not just inanimate symbols. They exist beyond the façade of backbreaking expectations.
In 1960, Milkha Singh doesn’t want to go to Pakistan to participate in a friendly sporting event. The officials are perplexed. The movie then soon dives into a flashback, and then a flashback within a flashback to understand what led to this decision. Because Milkha Singh is a sprinter for just those 200, 400 meters, or during the time he practices. There’s more to each one of us than our professional medallions.
Milkha Singh didn’t always want to be a sprinter. His childhood was scarred by the bloody partition, when the paramount, immediate need was to survive. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’s aesthetics in the first half is so refreshing that it makes for a delightful viewing – everything is amplified here: the protagonist’s desires, motivations, the rambunctious linear camaraderie amongst Milkha and his friends. In fact, even the act of running itself is not mundane. It’s Milkha’s way to run away from anything unpleasant; it’s his defense mechanism. So, Milkha runs away when he roughs up his brother-in-law, Milkha runs away after injuring a street ruffian, Milkha runs to her sister to reunite with her post-partition, when he hears his name being blared on the loudspeaker.
In the movie’s first half, Mehra builds a vibrant, captivating mood. And, there’s no cheating involved here. Because Mehra makes his intention clear from the first frame that this biopic is going to be soaked in melodrama. In fact, quite interestingly, in the first half, the movie never plays out like a conventional biopic, because everything is wrapped up in sheer theatrics. Mehra takes his cues from the masala Bollywood movie of the 70s – there are two instances when a toddler Milkha transforms to a young Milkha in a way that’s reminiscent of Bachchan growing up in the movie of 70s: a shot that cuts from a character’s younger version to an older one. Milkha’s escapades that conclude by him sitting on a top of the train, the sheepish courtship between Milkha and his love interest. The frames appear nostalgically familiar.
But, the thing with melodrama is that it’s so much about the ambience. Melodrama begins getting grating and cringing once you start seeing the devices employed by the screenwriter and the director. But when it’s done right, it’s beautiful, because melodrama can make you believe anything. But, if not kept a tight leash on, melodrama can also soon become excessive, which spawns multiple, unsurmountable problems.
The problem with Bhaag Milkha’s second half is that its melodrama is not only excessive but also appears superficial and designed. So, a rural army man is in the flight for the first time – cut to a customary funny scene about the intricacies of tying a seat belt. A rural army man, who’s not fluent in English, is in the foreign country for the first time – cut to a customary funny scene about the faux-pas involved in not understanding a foreign language. And seriously, how old and unoriginal is the, ‘I am not relaxing, but <some> Singh,’ joke anyway? The sprinter loses the race, feels dejected on the flight back home – cut to a scene that’s designed to evoke sympathy for our hero. You suddenly realize what happened to that movie, which was flowing seamlessly in the first half? And, it’s almost a moment of epiphany – this movie doesn’t have a central conflict, it lacks an overarching antagonist. The only thing, the lack of an antagonist is not a major problem as such. But it bothers Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (director) and Prasoon Joshi (Lyricist, Screenwriter) a lot.
The movie is essentially about a man who is battling his scarred memories. He has a lot of questions, but even he knows, that they will always remain unanswered. You can’t equate a bunch of people to a country. Maybe Milkha never intellectualized his conundrums. Maybe he did. We don’t know the answer.
But, Joshi and Mehra are fixated on knowing the answer. And, they don’t want to probe into Milkha’s life to come up with an answer. Instead, they resort to a much easier alternative — constructing a crowd-pleasing answer of their own. So, if there’s no antagonist, Mehra and Joshi will make one up. And they do, and it makes the movie embarrassingly weak. The antagonist here is the easiest target of the all — the coach of the Pakistan’s athletic team, Javed (Nawab Shah).
In the final leg of the movie, Mehra constructs scenes of fake conflicts between Milkha Singh’s coach, Ranveer Singh and Javed. What could have been a beautiful exploration of Milkha Singh’s scarred past and his attempt to come to terms with it becomes bastardized with puerile demonization of the ‘other’. This incessant need to ascribe motives, and an abrupt switch from an internal to external conflict brings the movie to its knees. Repetitions abound too – recycling of visuals that we are more than familiar with now, repetition of motifs. As the movie lumbers to its end credits – you suddenly think what really happened? This was a movie that was supposed to be a biopic of India’s one of the most prominent athletes, but it bizarrely ends up in a Gadar-like space.
The melodramatic shenanigans become grating in the second half. Especially because they don’t have anything new, substantial to say. They are not segued into a mood. They are just disconnected and superficial. It’s fine if you don’t have anything to say after a certain point. Honesty and brevity are much valued traits in cinema than sprawling syrupy melodrama that uses weak symbols to drive home its point, when none exists in the first place.