What an extraordinary story this is. That of conquering personal demons created from a past, to achieving a professional high. That the two are inexorably linked makes it even more riveting.
You'd think a story such as this would automatically translate into a great film. Sadly that's not the case.
The film begins around the '60s, with a committee going to visit Milkha Singh (Farhan Akhtar). The idea is to convince the athlete to participate in the Friendship Games with Pakistan. Singh is immediately reluctant. Never one to back away from a challenge, his coach is surprised.
The tale goes back and forth in time. So we see everything from his 'meet-cute' with a village girl (Sonam Kapoor) and their cliched romance, to his joining the army, and finally getting selected for running races.
His climb is steady and propped by two adoring mentors. But that's till the opportunity of the Friendship Games arises.
And then we get to hear his backstory in sepia-tone. A brutal childhood tinged with losing his family, saving his own life, and becoming a petty criminal in the process.
It's a violence-filled, heart-rending flashback that immediately strikes you as being too dark and excessive for a film like this. And then you have the child Milkha Singh in a refugee camp, thrilled to have found his lost sister (Divya Dutta), and then having to see her suffer marital rape and abuse behind closed curtains.
That issue is left without any plausible conclusion, as you see the husband miraculously transformed in the second half.
The film is guilty of major flaws. One is its following an expected diktat. If it's a sardar protagonist, there have to be at least two merry dances with the colleagues. The sardar can down two tins of ghee at a go. And he'll create a scene on his first flight abroad for some laughs.
The exaggerations, even if inspired by Milkha Singh's life, are embarrassingly implausible. Whether it's Milkha breaking a National Record despite being severely injured, or a baby-faced Australian girl falling for Singh after a weird song-and dance at a bar, or the lyrics building him up to a super-human.
The background score, with a standard flute in the sad scenes, insinuating an aalap when there's bloodshed, and playing Saare Jahaan Se Acha when he's winning, is massively disappointing.
The film does a great disservice to its female characters that are there only as appendages – available only for loving, adoring and taking care of the central protagonist.
Farhan Akhtar, completely in character, elevates the film. His dedication shows in the manner he has transformed himself for the role and is evident in the nail-biting scenes where Akhtar manages to transport you to Milkha's world. It's one of those rare, stupendous performances let down by a mediocre film.
Casting Dalip Tahil as Jawahar Lal Nehru is a stretch, that was best avoided. As was director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's cameo as the flight captain.
Fraught with repetitive dialogue and scenes, and a running time that's at least 30 minutes superfluous, the film that could have been a delight, ends up being mostly dreary.
Even the fascinating real footage of Olympics held over the years and of the Partition doesn't offer much respite.
A story such as this with so much potential for emotion, drama, thrill and triumph could get diluted, if not told dexterously. (One thinks back to Paan Singh Tomar that also had a lot to say, but did it without weighing down the viewer.)
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a film cracking under its own weight. If only Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra had ditched the self-serious tone and let the film breathe a bit.
Watch it if you must for Akhtar's moving performance and to witness Milkha Singh's remarkable story.
Rating: 2.5 stars