Of the 80 races he ran, he won 77.
His impeccable track record, undying spirit and magical sprint moulded him into an icon like no other.
And it’s his glorified victories and devastating defeats that we magnificently celebrate in a three-hour-and-10-minute tribute that director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra intrinsically weaves together on celluloid.
For a country that’s (still) hungry for sporting legends, a turbaned athlete had sprung into action on the Indian soil in the 1950s to fill that void.
While it was his thirst for milk and unflinching desire to rightfully own a blue blazer embellished with the Indian ‘chakra’ that prompted him on the field initially, he eventually comprehended that this was his true calling.
Milkha Singh ran with great splendor, effortlessly winning one honour after another and earning himself an unmatchable place in Indian history.
Much like any story of great success, even his was punctured with numerous failures and setbacks, ones that might’ve gone unnoticed in history, but not in Mehra’s unhurried narrative.
While some events appear highly dramatized to fit into the Bollywood frame, especially the one where we catch Milkha wooing an Australian beauty in a Melbourne watering hole just before his Olympic debut in 1956, Mehra has attempted (mostly) to stick to the real story.
Cinematographer Binod Pradhan indulges in riveting imaginary to capture Milkha’s haunting memories of a past bloodied during the Indo-Pak Partition.
As the curtains roll out, we witness Milkha’s most highlighted defeat as he shockingly bows out of the 1960 Olympics in Rome, despite starting off to an impressive start.
Mehra then journeys back in time, to capture Milkha’s blissful childhood nourished by a doting family and a trusted friend, and how the Partition leaves him orphaned, homeless, broken and forces him into a life undignified.
It’s during his teens that he skips a heartbeat for a gorgeous girl, who persuades him into finding an honourable life, one that leads him to the Indian army.
Prasoon Joshi pens an indulgent screenplay that shifts between the past and the present, intrinsically capturing the trials and tribulations of the star. The shift in time could appear a tad tough to keep up with, but one that Mehra has notably mastered since ‘Rang De Basanti’.
Even the set design and costumes are top-notch and depicts the 1950s aesthetically.
Their efforts, however, would’ve gone unnoticed if it were not for the brilliance of Farhan Akhtar, who steps into Milkha’s life so intensely.
From chiseling the perfect athletic body to emulating Milkha’s genius on the field, Farhan runs, breathes and talks Milkha, never ever allowing us a glimpse of the star we’ve grown accustomed to. Even his Punjabi twang and earnest smile matches those of the legend. His transformation from a lanky village lad to an athlete is equally striking and astoundingly endearing.
From requesting his coach to scribble the 400m world record mid-flight in a bid to overcome a recent defeat, to returning to his village home that he was once forced out of, Farhan remarkably depicts Milkha’s incredible grit and solidarity.
Farhan is ably assisted by a handful of extraordinary talent. Divya Dutta creates many a tearjerker moments, marvelously capturing her unwavering love for her kid brother.
Pawan Malhotra plays Milkha’s coach Gurudev Singh with charm and poise, as he hearteningly guides him into living his destiny. Prakash Raj is equally delightful as the boisterous army chief, who yells at a whim but melts when his soldier preps for greater glory off the war zone.
Sonam Kapoor is fairly genuine and fits into a frame reminiscent of Mehra’s ‘Delhi-6’, but the screenplay doesn’t allow her an opportunity to showcase an improvement, if any.
Despite the prestigious Olympic glory eluding him, Mehra deservedly honours the runner’s other victories and impeccable talent, allowing us to applaud the prodigy.
And, Farhan manages to step into the shoes of ‘the flying Sikh’ and convincingly races to the finish line with aplomb.