Indian Olympic running legend Milkha Singh — otherwise known as the Flying Sikh — gets the lavish biopic treatment in “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,” a rousing and handsomely crafted sports drama that’s on sure footing when it sticks to the track, but falls short of its ambitions to turn Singh’s life into a metaphor for fraught Indo-Pakistani relations in the years following the 1947 Partition. Boasting an appealing lead performance by director-turned-actor Farhan Akhtar and sturdy direction by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (who explored similar themes of personal and national identity in his 2006 “Rang de basanti”), this global July 12 release should post solid returns for producer Viacom 18, if somewhat less than portended by the pic’s high degree of advance hype.
Singh, who reportedly sold his life rights to the filmmakers for the sum of 1 rupee, is something of an irresistible figure, both for his athletic prowess and for a life marked by twists of fate and fortune straight out of fiction. “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” opens on one such moment — the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where the heavily favorite Singh ended up placing fourth in his signature race (the 400 meters) — then flashes back to Singh’s childhood and adolescence, where Mehra and screenwriter Prasoon Joshi (“Delhi 6”) set about unpacking the personal demons they believe haunted Singh as he made his run for the gold. It’s an unapologetically Freudian approach that frequently circles back to the violent events of the Partition, during which the Sikh Singh and his family found themselves on the Pakistan side of the newly drawn national border.
Pic’s fragmented structure continues to move back and forth in time, as events in Singh’s present trigger memories of the past, particularly the young Milkha (played by Jabtej Singh) witnessing his parents’ slaughter during violent Partition rioting. (The title, which translates as “Run Milkha Run,” are the final words spoken to the 12-year-old by his father, well played by veteran Anglo-Pakistani thesp Art Malik in his Bollywood debut.) Circumscribing all of this is a larger framing story in which Singh’s two longtime coaches (Pavan Malhotra and Yograj Singh) travel across India by train to convince the dejected Singh, brought low by his failure in Rome, to represent India in the Commonwealth Games.
Along the way, “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” devotes extended episodes to Singh’s post-Partition life in a Delhi refugee camp, where he is reunited with his devoted elder sister, Isri (the superb Divya Dutta), and to his years as an army cadet, where he first discovers his gift for speed. Even then, Singh is still something of a village bumpkin surrounded by more sophisticated city types, and Akhtar is especially good at playing this wide-eyed naif, who, in one spectacularly misjudged move, “borrows” the embroidered national team blazer of a visiting track star, who in turn gives Singh a brutal lashing. Still, the seed has been planted, and Singh has resolved that he, too, shall someday call such a blazer his own.
Much of the pic’s midsection focuses on Singh’s gradual evolution into a fierce competitor — familiar stuff made vivid by Malhotra’s fiery performance as Singh’s army track coach, and by Akhtar himself, who trained for more than a year to develop the lean, muscled physique and concentrated gaze of a sprinter in his prime. Likewise, Mehra, working with regular cinematographer Binod Pradhan and editor P.S. Bharathi, brings a lot of dynamism to the racing scenes, from the screen-filling wide shots that establish the lay of the land to the slo-mo closeups of spiked cleats — and, in one memorable scene, bloodied bare feet — gripping the track.
“Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” is never quite as compelling in its straight dramatic scenes, many of which feel shoehorned in just to satisfy the pic’s epic designs. Since there must be a romance, Singh enters into an on-again, off-again flirtation with the beautiful village girl Biro (Sonam Kapoor), though she never quite materializes as a three-dimensional character and somewhat abruptly disappears in the third act. Overlong even by Bollywood norms, the three-hour-plus pic also spends undue time on the dalliance between Singh and the comely daughter (Rebecca Breeds) of an Australian running coach during training for the 1956 Melbourne Games; dewy-eyed walks on the beach ensue, as well as what may be film history’s most unlikely line-dancing, country-western production number (a misfire in the otherwise fine song score by the popular team of Shankar, Ehsaan & Loy).
Pic rallies for a rousing finale, as Singh agrees to run in the Commonwealth Games, which Mehra and Joshi stage as an Indian analog to Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Still, the conflation of sports and politics in “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” always feels strained, with Singh’s story remaining most absorbing as a story of personal — rather than national — triumph.