At three hours and nine minutes, it's the longest biopic in a generation in India [just two minutes shorter than Richard Attenborough's Gandhi]. But Bhaag Milkha Bhaag doesn't numb the bum. Instead, you might find yourself sitting comfortably through this one because you finally have an Indian story you can applaud without apology.
On Thursday night, with India playing Sri Lanka in a cricket final, every seat was taken in the cinema. With good reason. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is the feel-good Hindi movie of the decade. Unless Milkha Singh comes up with something startling in his autobiography, Farhan Akhtar is how new India will know Milkha.
Under Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's eyes, Akhtar moves out of his normal stilted routine of a rich boy who makes it in the end by surmounting challenges that never were. In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, he is raw and has genuine hurdles to overcome.
He probably looks like the real Milkha the most and that sets him up to get into the athlete's skin. I wouldn't be surprised if the real Milkha's offspring or village friends start to gape at Akhtar.
You might have a sense that the story is vaguely familiar. It is. The lanky Sikh who barely gets anything in life the first time as he slowly settles in India after being forced to run from Pakistan is part of Indian sports folklore.
Although we know of him, we have never been intimate with Milkha. Here, we are right by his side. Partition was bad enough for adults. For Milkha the child, it must been a life-altering nightmare.
The man who sprinted his way into track and field glory almost went the other way. The film stays a bit with Milkha's initial years in India as a vagabond in the relief camps where he is nurtured by a gang of moonlighters.
Mehra suggests Milkha almost made a career choice of a totally different nature, which is not usually part of the pre-Bhaag Milkha Bhaag narrative.
The direction is superb. Mehra seems to have found a way to navigate long years of Indian history and put together rousing prismatic chronicles that hang in your memory like a tapestry of hurt and honour.
He did it with Rang De Basanti and he's done it with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.
Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy are in great form. There could've been a song less but it doesn't matter. In the movie, with finely executed scenes playing out, their music is almost pitch and tone perfect. It might work just as well on radio and disc players, too.
Binod Pradhan is a master voyeur with his camera. He gets a big canvas and he strides on it. The storyline means that Pradhan almost never has a chance to zoom out and give us the breathtaking panoramic sweeps that a different story might have.
Pradhan has to stay close all the way and he does it with finesse. Prasoon Joshi does the rest – his lines keep the tale from slipping into hype and it helps enormously.
The people around Akhtar are excellent. Pawan Malhotra, one of India's finest acting talents, is the mentor who rides out his mentee's emotional rollercoaster even more than the mentee. Malhotra is never bad and he is terrific here as well.
Two regulars on the Telugu film circuit - Prakash Raj and Dev Gill - have nice cameos. Raj is south India's busiest character actor and he gets to shape Milkha's formative years in the EME at Secunderabad.
Gill is Milkha's Pakistani rival and he enjoys himself on the track, a world away from the outrageous dons he normally plays in Telugu films.
Yograj Singh, better known as cricketer Yuvraj Singh's father, is bang on as Milkha's coach. I was surprised at how much Yograj's voice and diction is like Randhir Kapoor's. Then, there's Dilip Tahil loving every minute as Jawaharlal Nehru.
Midway, there's a stirring rendition of the Jana Gana Mana, which come to think of it is really the finest National Anthem on the planet. It is gloriously done and fills you with pride. The blood rush is so intense and so cathartic that it is a genuine moment when being Indian feels great.
I'm not sure if Mehra's own experience as a sportsman - he was a swimmer - helped in making a movie on a sportsman, but he's got it done and dusted.
There are of course things Mehra doesn't get right. Sonam Kapoor is hugely miscast. She is too young to be Milkha's love interest and she looks, acts and speaks as such. It's artificial.
And then, there's the Akhtar six-pack [or was it eight-pack]. There's no way an Indian sprinter would've worked on a body as sculpted as Akhtar's here. It's too gymmy to be Milkha [he is not Usain Bolt]. As far as I know, no one in India was working on an eight-pack in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Also, Akhtar takes off his shirt [or T-shirt] too easily and too often. This was unacceptable behaviour in public in the India of Nehru. Gold medal or not, Milkha would've got a spanking at home for this. Conduct counted for more than medals in that era.
There are several highs for Akhtar as Milkha. He finally shows us he can emote when he returns to Pakistan and makes a trip to the village he ran from. The scene in which he grieves for his mother and family is terrific craft.
And there's the lovely moment in Melbourne. An Australian girl asks Milkha if he is relaxing [along with all the hard work] in Melbourne. "No, I am Milkha Singh," he says. It was a joke that made more than a generation chuckle. See it here.
There are three other reasons to watch Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Milkha gave his story away for Re 1. Sonam Kapoor worked for just Rs 11. And the proceeds of the film will go to needy athletes.
In time, Mehra will make better movies. His editing will be tighter; he won't go over the top like when he had Milkha breaking the national record with virtually crippled legs. Until then, take the family along and spend the money. You won't regret it.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag should get even drug-addled Punjab flocking to the cinemas. I remember as a child I was mesmerised by what was on the screen. The flaws of a film never bothered me then. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag should work wonderfully - especially for anyone in school.
There's a possible hero in every child. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag might help free our young heroes. The words bhaag Milkha bhaag were apparently his father's last admonition to him as he was slain by marauders from Pakistan.
It haunts him.
The Flying Sikh ennobled a nation desperate for dignity. So sorry Milkha that we haven't done anything since.
Rating: 4.5 stars