Bhaag Milkha Bhaag translates as “Run Milkha Run,” and that phrase repeatedly propels this thrilling epic true story of Milkha Singh, who surmounted the horrors of the violent India/Pakistan partition in 1947 as well as refugee poverty to conquer not just racing tracks around the world but his own crippling memories. All of this occurs in an international Bollywood release with catchy music and dance, featuring a terrific central performance by multi-hyphenate actor/director Farhan Akhtar.
From out of the starting blocks at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the “Run Milkha Run” refrain is seen first tripping Singh up during the crucial last seconds of a race. His story moves around in time by triggers to his emotional memories.
In a series of flashbacks, his father (Art Malik, in his Bollywood debut after his prominent role in the latest Upstairs Downstairs) refuses to heed warnings that his large, loving family in a quiet Sikh village in the Punjab (where Sikhism originated centuries ago) could be endangered now that the village rests on the Pakistan side of the new post-colonial border. “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” are the last words he yells out to the then-12-year-old (the appealingly rakish Jabtej Singh) to get away. The boy ends up a miserable orphan in a hardscrabble refugee camp where “Run Milkha Run” applies to getting away from bullies and the authorities.
He grows into an adult amidst Slumdog Millionaire-like conditions, and on the long line at the water pump he sees the beautiful Biro (Sonam Kapoor, star of the widely-released Saawariya in 2007), and their lovely duet is a charming courtship amidst colorfully billowing fabrics. But she won’t marry a thief, and he promises to give that up, especially after he gets thrown in jail and his beloved and newly reunited sister Isri (Divya Dutta) has to sell her earrings, her only items of value from their old life, to bail him out. He joins the army and enters a race for the benefit of extra milk and eggs, and he impresses the coach, a fellow turbaned Sikh, even when running barefoot, hurting with a stone in his foot. (We also learn that Sikhs race not with their full turban but with a cloth topknot.)
In the second half (some theaters may use the traditional intermission), Milkha has proudly made the national team, but a flashback to the love duet only leads to heartbreak. On his trip to Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics, he encounters stereotyped non-South Asian characters, as typical in Bollywood films: an Australian coach in an Akubra hat and a flirtatious beer-drinking blonde in a bikini who has never seen a turbaned Sikh before. There he learns the valuable lesson of what it takes to compete at the highest international level, and he undertakes really serious training (much as the actor actually did for more than six months) under the relentless national coach. He sets a goal of beating the world record in the 400 meters.
To the tune of a stirring anthem, Akhtar astonishingly firms up his rippling muscles before our eyes, accented by (literally) buckets of sweat, gleaming in high-altitude desert sands, and dripping in monsoon rains. Milkha sets off on a winning streak in a whirlwind of international meets over the next few years, from Tokyo to Oslo, but he’s still haunted by desperate images of his father that trip him up.
Only because of importuning by Nehru himself (Dalip Tahil) does the depressed Milkha reluctantly return to running, using the opportunity to find his home village and finally unearth his buried memories. It’s kind of a therapy for the posttraumatic stress from the awful massacre of his family during the frenzy of persecutions unleashed when the sub-continent was divided into mostly Muslim Pakistan and primarily Hindu India. So as not to be too negative towards Pakistan, the film has a childhood friend show up who was saved by the boys’ Muslim teacher, though it looks like the price was, in effect, conversion, and one of the members of the India team is portrayed by Pakistani actress Meesha Shafi, in her Bollywood debut, apparently representing the athlete he eventually married.
Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra not only choreographs action scenes as if they are dances (on top of railroad cars, and especially the music video-like training scenes to the title song), but also marvelously integrates the musical numbers into the story line. Milkha adjusts to the rigors of army life in a syncopated masculine ensemble number that’s like a bhangra take on South Pacific’s “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” and he wins his place into the arrogant national team with the “Mera Yaar” (“My Friend”) ensemble. (There are hints that the snobbery he frequently deals with is due to his speaking Punjabi as well as his destitute background.) Some might find what may be the first country & western/bhangra mash-up at an Australian pub too much, but Akhtar’s joie de vivre is nevertheless infectious.