×

Film Review: ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’

This rousing and handsomely crafted biopic of running legend Milkha Singh is on sure footing when it sticks to the track.

With:
Farhan Akhtar, Sonam Kapoor, Dalip Tahil, Art Malik, Prakash Raj, Divya Dutta, Rebecca Breeds. (Hindi dialogue)

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag'

(India)

Production: A Reliance Entertainment release of a Viacom 18 Motion Pictures and ROMP Pictures pesentation. Produced by Rajiv Tandon, P.S. Bharathi. Co-producer, P.S. Shyam.

Crew: Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Screenplay, Prasoon Joshi. Camera (color, widescreen), Binod Pradhan; editor, P.S. Bharathi; music, Shankar, Ehsaan & Loy; lyrics, Joshi; choreography, Ganesh Acharya, Vaibhavi Merchant, Shaimak Davar; production designer, Acropolis Design; costume designer, Dolly Ahluwalia; visual effects, Tata Elxsi, Pixion, Firefly; stunt coordinator, Allan Amin; casting, Dilip Shankar, Aadore Mukherjee. Reviewed at Tribeca Cinemas, New York, July 8, 2013. Running time: 185 MIN. (I: 91 MIN.; II: 94 MIN.)

With: Farhan Akhtar, Sonam Kapoor, Dalip Tahil, Art Malik, Prakash Raj, Divya Dutta, Rebecca Breeds. (Hindi dialogue)

More Film

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content