FILM REVIEW India remembers the 'Flying Sikh' Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Run Milkha Run) directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Reviewed by Dinesh Sharma
The biographical film about the life journey of the legendary Indian track and field athlete, Milkha Singh, released globally last week, saw strong returns on its opening weekend. But it seems to have stirred a controversy across the border in Pakistan.
The reason is a scene where the athlete is urging Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, not to force him to cross the border for a friendly competition between the two neighboring
countries. Though it is not overtly political, it's central to the story.
"Sir, mere se nahi hona." (Sir, I can't do it.)
"Mere per nehi uthna, Sir. Mein Pakistan nahi jaunga." (I won't be able to lift my feet. I won't go to Pakistan.)
"Tum ek soldier hoon. Agar tumhe apne aap se bhi jang keni pare, to tumhe kerni chayia," Nehru says to Singh. (You're a soldier. You should battle yourself even if you have to).
According to reports in the Indian news media, Pakistan's censor board objected to this scene. The director has denied any such rumors and news stories, but it remains to be seen whether Milkha Singh (now a remarkably fit looking 78-year-old) will actually cross the border for the release of the film in Pakistan. What kinds of emotions might it stir in the athlete and the two nations? Will life imitate art and vice versa, while reflecting deep cultural history of the region?
The film narrates the story of India's national trauma (the partition of 1947), interwoven with the psychological trauma suffered by Milkha Singh, the best known individual track and field athlete India has produced, who was orphaned in the riots that followed in a village near Lyallpur, Punjab (British India).
The director, Rakeysh Mehra, whose previous films include the award-winning Rang de Basanti (Color it Saffron), has made a historically relevant film that is bound to receive world-wide critical acclaim.
Milkha Singh (played by Farhan Akhtar) was born in 1935 in what is now known as West Punjab. He was 12 years old at the time of the Hindu-Muslim riots that ensued after the partition of India and Pakistan following the independence from the British rule. He lost both his parents in the sectarian riots. Except for an elder sister (Divya Dutta), who in effect became his guardian, Singh came of age as a runaway and rebellious child.
Finally, when confronted with the challenges of adulthood, he joined the Indian army. There, he found his true path as an athlete, became a world-class runner, and managed to break through the limitations of his social conditions and what the film director has appropriately called his "lost childhood".
In the film, when Milkha Singh qualifies to join the Indian athletics team - while running on injured feet and ankles, without appropriate shoes and with little professional training - we realize the huge odds he was running against when India was just an underdeveloped society.
As he collapses to the ground, he claims "Milkha has now become India". His life inspired the generation of my grandparents and parents for whom the partition of India and Pakistan was a living memory. Mehra has done a national service by retrieving the life of this Indian folk hero from the pages of history for the next generation, some of whom may be more familiar with the image of Washington or Franklin on a dollar bill than Gandhi or Nehru on a rupee.
"Because India is not a very sporting nation, it is important to retell the story," Mehra said. "I grew up on the Milkha Singh story as a regular staple of my diet, and this inspired me to make the film."
Mehra intimately narrates the life history, while capturing the human spirit of "The Flying Sikh", an accolade given to him by the then premier of Pakistan (General Ayub Khan) after he defeated his Pakistani counterpart, Abdul Khaliq. In Milkha's struggles to win 77 of the 80 races he ran throughout his career, we see independent India's attempts to carve out its own path in the Asian hemisphere and the larger Anglosphere.
The name of the film in Punjabi - Bhaag Milkha Bhaag - translated as "Run Milkha Run" - was the exact phrase communicated by his father at the time of the massacre, who instructed the boy "don't look back" and "just keep on running". "Nothing will happen to you, my son, just keep on running and don't look back," his father had warned him repeatedly.
And that is what Milkha Singh did all his life. He ran and ran and kept on running. He did not look back, except at a fateful moment in the 1960 Rome Olympics, which may have cost him dearly. He lost a medal place in the 400 meters by a micro-second. Losing out on an Olympics medal has haunted him for the rest of his life.
Mehra said during a Q&A session that Milkha Singh had nightmares before the race, due to something unknowable tugging at his anxious soul. Here, Mehra relies on personal and historical memories of the partition to recreate the dark and bloody scenes that Milkha witnessed as an impressionable boy.
The dark memories that propelled him to do his best when competing against Pakistan may have become a liability on a larger stage against competitors who were not his foe. In the very act of looking back at around the 250 meter point in the 400 meter race in Rome, Mehra suggests, Milkha Singh lost the edge he needed to win.
Milkha Singh himself has said that the two of the worst memories of his life have been losing his parents and losing at the Rome Olympics. He felt dejected and cried profusely after both events. The gentle yet tightly woven strings that bind our lives together also have knots that can rupture at any time. On the whole, the stories I heard as a child of Milkha Singh's graceful life are faithfully rendered in Mehra's film.
When I asked Mehra why the film was very psychological in its treatment of Milkha Singh's early trauma, he said, "Everything in the film is factually correct."
Similarly, when I followed up with a political question about what type of larger political statement the film was trying to convey at this time, he was quick with a reply. He said, "Yes, the conflict between the two countries [India and Pakistan] has gone on for too long. It is time to end it ... I have so many friends across the border. And the food over there is so good. Why can't we just open the highway [between the two countries], and let people travel."
Very much as he did with his other films, Mehra relies on an international cast to draw in an audience. Milkha Singh's father is powerfully acted by the Pakistani British actor Art Malik (whose career ranges from Jewel in the Crown to True Lies). Milkha was known to be a ladies man; his Aussie girlfriend is played by Rebecca Breeds. One of his other female friends is beautifully represented by the Pakistani actress and singer Meesha Shafi.
Veteran Indian film and theater actor Dalip Tahil dons a Nehru cap and jacket as India's first prime minister, who manages to convince Milkha Singh to return to Pakistan for a friendly race between the two countries. His two coaches, ably played by veteran Punjabi actor Yograj Singh and Delhi stage and TV actor Pavan Malhotra, provide the motivational glue that pushes the story forward.
After Milkha Singh himself watched the film, he told Mehra, "Yaara, tu mainu amar kar deta hai." (Friend, you have immortalized me.) Milkha Singh has indeed become a living legend. After watching the film and hearing this story, the audience at the Tribeca Cinema in New York City, responded with thunderous applause.
Like so many sporting classics, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that this biographical film could inspire thousands of young Milkha Singhs to become athletes and take up running through the narrow streets and gullies of India's towns and villages.