“So far”, because Sultan looks like it could be an even better athlete film. If not just a better film in general. I’m not going to say sports film, because Chak De India is the best at making a movie about a whole team and sport, with no interest in one particular person. But Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is the best at looking at one particular athlete. And the best at showing how the issues of that one athlete relate to bigger issues with the country and the world at large.
My first most favorite part about Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is the structure, which manages to marry the personal and the athletic, by showing each sports triumph in context with the personal difficulties that surrounded it. But more importantly, because I was 20 minutes late when I saw it in theaters and I missed nothing!
Also, I am fond of BMB because my arriving 20 minutes late for that show is one of my favorite memories. See, my friend, let’s call her “Kathy” was driving me, and her car ran out of gas about 5 miles from the theater. We were meeting two other friends, lets call them “Chris” and “Sally” at the theater, so we called them, they said “hey, you guys want popcorn? We are about to go in to the theater.” And then the call got cut off before we could finish explaining that we weren’t about to walk into the theater and join them, because instead we were standing by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.
So I waited by the car, Kathy started off walking to the nearest gas station, and then she came back only ten minutes later because some good Samaritan saw her and gave her a ride there and back. And just as she starts to pour gas into the tank, Chris and Sally pull up, they did get our message and walked out of the theater, jumped in their car, and drove back to help. So the 3 of us stood on the side of the road and ate popcorn and watched while Kathy fixed her car. And then we all caravaned back to the theater, arriving just as the first flashback ended, but who cares, because that was the least important part of the film! And having a wonderful story I can tell for the rest of my life about when I ate theater popcorn on the side of the road and watched someone else pour gas in her tank was much more important.
It was also a nice way to get my adrenaline going before the movie started, because this is a very adrenaline-y film! I think that’s what makes it such a great portrait of an athlete, because you are right there with him in every race. You know what’s at stake, and you really want him to succeed, and then the race starts and everything slows down or speeds up and you are on the edge of your seat until you see what happens!
The other thing that is really nice, which I don’t think Salman bothered with so much for Sultan, is that we get to see Farhan physically change over the course of the film. It was clearly shot in sequence, which is very unusual for both Indian and American , but it was worth it to see his body go from soft and youthful to hard and perfected. So within this flashback structure, we have a kind of anchor, based on what he looks like. Also, you know, beefcake shots are always good!
It’s shot in sequence, and it is also shot with actual period touches, which is also very unusual for Indian film. I just watched Azhar (terrible movie!) which didn’t even bother with things as simple as making sure no one was carrying a smartphone in 1996. But Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has actual period touches with the cars, the clothes, even the airplanes are all from the right era. Which, again, is very helpful in giving us a landmark as we jump around between flashbacks.
While Farhan’s abs and costumes may give us a chronological landmark, the song sequences give us the emotional landmarks. That’s what’s so cool about the film, we are hoping around a bit in time, but we are moving straight-forward in the emotional journey. From triumph to love to excitement to determination to acceptance. Or something like that. My point is, the songs are great! And do a better job of showing Farhan’s internal journey than his acting does. Which isn’t a slam at his acting, he’s fine in this (I’d still rather someone else played the role and Farhan spent the time directing Don 3, but you can’t have everything), but a compliment to the songs.
Which makes sense, considering the director. I know, the director doesn’t actually write the songs, but he provides the narration that inspires the composer, and he provides the visuals that can best frame the songs. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra gave me my all time favorite AR Rahman album, Rang De Basanti. I think every song is perfect, carrying an emotional through line even while radically changing styles, and the visuals are beautiful, bringing the song sequence into high art, making it not a “break” from the narrative, but an essential part of the narrative. He did the same with Delhi-6, but that’s just not as strong a narrative. And then with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, he had a strong narrative, and he was working with my favorite composers, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, so of course the soundtrack was amazing!
What’s amazing is how the soundtrack builds. It is my go-to when I am working on something (whether it is my Master’s thesis or cleaning the apartment), because it perfectly parallels the process of creating something, starting with the bit power anthem to get you going, then a sort of loose and happy song, going into the moment inspiration strikes, than the just chugging along enjoying it song, and finally the inspiration for the final stretch. It’s a sports film, yes, but it is also a film about someone achieving something, becoming something, and the emotional journey that takes him there.
And then there’s the actual plot. Which is a perfect example of the not controversial/but secretly sneaking in the controversial kind of plot. And you have to wonder if Sultan is going to be the same. Salman’s name is “Sultan Ali Khan”, after all. And I think it might be the first time Salman has played a Muslim on film?
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The framework for the plot is “World’s most needlessly complex answer to a simple question!” The President of India (Nehru, played by character actor utility player Dalip Tahil, which makes me laugh every time I see him in this all serious in a Nehru jacket) wants Milkha Singh to represent the country at a sports event between Pakistan and India. Milkha refuses to go, so his old coaches and a government representative all pile into the train to go from Delhi to, I want to say Chandigarh? And the government official asks “Why is it that Milkha won’t go to Pakistan?” And instead of saying “Because his family was killed in Partition”, his coaches say “Let me tell you in detail every significant moment of his life for the past 20 years!” And then they do. We come back from the flashbacks occasionally to see the “present day” people in the train car, and I keep waiting for one of them to burst out “STOP TALKING! I DON’T EVEN CARE ANY MORE!” But, they don’t, because then we would lose our framing device.
(Kajol’s Dad from Baazigar? No! It’s the President of India!)
The flashbacks, if I am remembering the order right, start with a happy childhood race with his childhood best friend, then his early years in the army. Then his memories of first arriving at the refugee camp in Kurukshetra (I am continually amazed at the thought of this mythological site of devastation and misery and brother losing brother, also being a historical site of devastation and misery and brother losing brother). Followed by his memories of life before the army, as a happy young man falling in love.
Then we see his arrival at the Olympic training camp. Then his return home from camp, full of pride, to learn that his sweetheart was married off to someone else. Then his first Olympics, where he has a fling with a nice local Australian girl and heals his broken heart, but loses his edge in the races. Then his determined training for the next international contests, culminating in a montage of broken records (records like racing records, not like he is throwing vinyl at the wall) and triumphal wins. And finally, back in the present day, he does agree to go to Pakistan, and faces his past. And we get the final horrible heart wrenching flashback to his childhood. Followed by his “present day” win. And credits!
It’s an interesting way of getting to know the character. I missed the first two flashbacks, his first days in the army and his happy childhood, but they don’t really matter. They are an illusion, they show us the carefree and happy mask he shows the world. How he pretends to still be that innocent little boy who never saw anything bad.
And then starting with his arrival at Kurukshetra we get to know the real Milkha, how he is driven and ruthless and determined. The fire inside that makes him risk everything for the chance to have the Indian flag on his jacket. Even in the later flashback when he is a carefree young man in love, we see the way he has to stand up to the corrupt officials who are persecuting him for his refugee status. And we see his determination in how patient and dedicated he is in his courtship.
The one thing that never changes, that is present in every vision of him, is how incredibly Sikh he is! A Sikh hero isn’t unheard of in Indian film (I assume it is almost the norm in Punjabi films), but it is unusual. Especially one who is so very Sikh. He wears a turban or a rumal (is that the right word? The little cloth over the bun that adorable small children and athletes wear?) in every scene. Not just that, we see all 5 of the Ks. There is a scene where he is hazed and stripped down to his Kachera, there is a scene where he slowly pulls out his knife, there is the scene where he dramatically uses his Kara to open a can of ghee. Okay, so I can’t remember when he combs his hair with a Kangha, but I am pretty sure he does!
Mostly, it is a movie about a hero who deals with his post-traumatic stress disorder and the tragedies of his life through his athletic journey, and finally finds piece. And in a greater sense, how there can be nobility and healing and power in physical achievement. But it is also a political statement. It has to be! I mean, look at the last few seconds of the trailer:
For me, at least, and I think this is what the filmmakers intended underneath all the historical costumes and athletics, the end of the trailer isn’t an image that makes you think of 1947, that’s an image that makes you think of 1984.