Tuesday, July 16, 2013

NEW: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag: Do you have the patience for a meandering marathon?

I usually like to start off reviews with a synopsis of the plot, a glimpse of what the film’s most basic story is. I’m not really sure I can start off talking about Bhaag Milkha Bhaag like that because the film is basically one giant, multidirectional, nonlinear ramble through the life of Milkha Singh, likely India’s most celebrated runner and Olympian.

I wish I could give Bhaag Milkha Bhaag a wonderful review. Because much of it is wonderful, powerful and beautiful — with the perfect amount of excellently done humor mixed in. But what ruins it is that Rakyesh Prakash Mehra doesn’t seem to know what editing is. The film is chock full of fluff — unnecessary focus and detail, absurdly long shots, frivolous montages and repetitiveness. Either a good 45 minutes should have been cut out or should have been used more effectively.

Most shots are wonderfully crafted and somehow Milkha’s running rarely gets boring, thanks in part to thoughtful shots such as a close-up on his shoes literally tearing up dirt. But the problem is many shots are just too indulgent. No one has patience for the unending deluge of them. How many times do we have to watch Milkha’s sweat droplets pour into a bucket? Or watch a sped-up shot of the track he’ll be running? Or watch him running dramatically in training? Or watch a so-long-it-started-drawing-laughs shot of Milkha weeping over the loss of his family? It all seems to lose its appeal after a time.

Wait, this wasn't a cameo role for Sonam? Could've fooled me.
Part of me couldn’t help but feel that the selection of what details to include was also completely directionless. The story is not exactly linear, which wouldn’t be a problem if there was some legitimate directional reason for that.

We see Milkha fail (in his most famous of failures) in the beginning and win in the end, which is pretty much the only direction there is. For example, why include Milkha’s romance with Biro (Sonam Kapoor) in the village, his fling with Australian girl Stella (Rebecca Breeds) and his rejection of fellow Olympian Perizaad (Pakistani model Meesha Shafi) if the film isn’t going to show the woman he actually married? Nirmal Kaur was an athlete as well, and I can’t help but feel her presence as a character would have been much more interesting and necessary than any of the others.

But maybe it’s because the women of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag effectively only exist to please Milkha for a time and then be his downfall. The only one who doesn’t fit these criteria is Ishri, Milkha’s sister — who instead is quiet and submissive, which leads to her being abused until Milkha gets angry and stands up for her. Divya Dutta gives inarguably the best female performance in this film (Sonam is even more lackluster than usual, Rebecca Breeds plays a stereotypical whorey gori, and does Meesha Shafi even have dialogues?!), but let’s not pretend that that role is a good one for a woman either.

Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag! All goris who are not me are baaad for you.

Ironically, though, that horribly boring scene where Milkha chooses poorly with a woman is what led to the highlight of my night. As Milkha gets intimate with the aforementioned whorey gori in his hotel room, a guy in our theater yells “BHAAG, MILKHA, BHAAG!!!” We broke out into laughter and applause for that witty but anonymous fellow.

Milkha, unfortunately, for once did not bhaag. (Nor did he seem to stop even for a second to consider that recently lost love of his life, Biro...)

 We all know this is what goes on in all army barracks at night.

But despite those “lapsing” moments that felt somewhat lackluster to me, I felt Farhan Akhtar gave a rather remarkable performance that seemed mostly spot on. From the determination — seriously, the physical commitment alone seems pretty remarkable — to the emotional moments to songs that let him show a softer, cuter side in a mostly serious film.

HOT DAMN, BOY. No, really. HOT DAMN.
Is there anything Farhan Akhtar can't do?
And veering outside my critic’s scope and into my fangirl role, hubba hubba, Farhan Akhtar! I have to say this is quite possibly the most attractive he’s ever been, from the holy-shit-are-those-real abs to the wild, curly hair that drove me crazy in a good way (the beach scene! Gawd). I’m thinking maybe Farhan should keep his Sikh look even when he goes back to being his Muslim self.

But anyway, I shall compose myself.

Writing about Bhaag Milkha Bhaag — and in fact, watching Bhaag Milkha Bhaag — I couldn’t help but go back a couple of years to a very similarly plotted film: Paan Singh Tomar. Two army men who came from villages and made a splash with their running abilities, both of whom didn’t do it for the love of running but rather for the special rations apportioned to athletes (doodh! I love it with Milkha’s fervor). Where they diverge is on how they ended. Paan Singh Tomar’s life went off track and into dacoit territory, which eventually got him killed. Milkha Singh had a famous failure on the Olympic stage… and kept on running and being a celebrated athlete. In purest plot terms, Paan Singh Tomar is inevitably going to be more interesting.

But let’s be honest: This film exists essentially to praise Milkha Singh, not for a story. And that’s okay — clearly plenty of people want to; the theater I was in erupted frequently into applause for even the fictional Milkha.

We get off to a good start! ... and then get lost in the marathon.

But it makes it hard to carry a film that is focused more on an idea — Milkha’s determination and triumph … of sorts — than on a story. Especially when it’s based on a true story, a historical thing. And especially especially when the movie is given to overindulgence on long, meandering scenes, turning into a marathon. A triumphant one, perhaps, but one that requires a Milkha-sized effort of endurance to complete while still caring.


  1. Been waiting for this :).

    Too long seems to be the one complaint everyone has. Which really is a shame because this is one of the better recent movies in terms of subject, performances, production values and even direction.

    I read elsewhere that this movie is like a bucketful of your favorite dessert. You love it when you begin but half way through you start wishing it just got over already.

    For me, it also was sprinkled with nuts that absolutely did not go well with the dessert. I do not care if he slept on the floor or cuddled with the gori girl. Nor do I care if the laal dupatta flew away or got stuck in the bridge.

    In the place and time the story is set in, if I carried water for a girl just once and never again, the whole world would happily swear that I do it every single day. Once in the morning and then in the evening. It was enough to show it zero or one time and no more.

    An editor is what this movie really needs. This movie had a potential of being one of the greatest sports movie ever. It still will be but more for the substance and less for the engagement. You already have to like the subject to go in.

    Again, it's a shame that the guy who gave water-tight Rang De Basanti, fantastic and yet believable, blotches Delhi 6 because of too much fluff and chooses not to learn.

    Oh by the way, take a bow Farhan!

    1. Oh, how did you ever know I would have a post about this? ;)

      And yes, I read that too. It's a wonderful analogy -- as is calling the unnecessary details unwanted nuts.

      As for the laal dupatta... Well, another friend said that scene would have been better if Sonam had fallen off the bridge while chasing the laal dupatta. That would have at least lent the scene some purpose! :)

      And I think that's the biggest problem with this movie -- that it had such potential. Like you said, it really could have been one of the greatest sports movies ever. If it'd just been edited!

  2. Well Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a superb movie, depicting how Milkha's hard work paid him. Milkha has to struggle a lot against with his emotions as well as his competitors. His visit to Pakistan complete broke his self, as that country remimded him of his bloody past where he lost his family.

  3. Bhag Milkha Bhaag is a legendary movie which will give a lot of inspiration to the sportmen now a days. Hope next time iin olympics we will perform better.