Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Run Milkha Run)
Indian track legend Milkha Singh is most famously known for two things: holding the world record in the 400 meters (not for nothing is he nicknamed "The Flying Sikh"), and--perhaps even more (in)famously--finishing just shy of the medal podium in his signature event at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome. Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and writer Prasoon Joshi address that latter elephant in the room right off the bat, opening Bhaag Milkha Bhaag with that crushing disappointment on the world stage--announcing from the jump that they have more in mind than a conventional sports biopic. This isn't to say that the traditional paces aren't covered, and the film does so in engrossing fashion, tracing Milkha's (Farhan Akhtar) beginnings in the sport while serving in the Indian Army, overcoming both internal resistance and injury, succumbing to and then resisting the temptations that come with success and global fame, and so forth. But Mehra and Joshi smartly realize that, remarkable though his athletics career was, the most dramatic and affecting aspect of Milkha's story goes far beyond sport: not only achieving the greatest heights after surviving a rough youth, but also finding the courage and strength to come to terms with the grief and unresolved anger of various losses (in every sense) and tragedies over the years to discover an inner peace to ultimately match, if not surpass, his success in the sporting arena. As well as the filmmakers do handle and blend both the genre conventions and their more ambitious thematic aims, it's unthinkable that the film would have resonated as strongly without Akhtar, whose performance here puts his still-young acting career on equal weight with his justly celebrated one as a writer, director, and producer. This is actually his first acting job where he has no additional involvement in the production, and his commitment to and focus on the sole task at hand comes through on screen: not only in the obvious physical transformation to look the part of a world class athlete, but also in how well he navigates the role's spectrum-spanning requirements, from the physical demands of grueling athletic scenes to the heavier dramatic moments to the even more traditional Bollywood tropes such as the ebullient abandon of a big dance number (Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy composed the rousing soundtrack) and a rather shoehorned-in first love/ heartbreak thread between a young Milkha and a village girl (Sonam Kapoor, largely wasted). As much of a respectful and inspiring tribute Mehra and Joshi have crafted for Milkha Singh, the film is just as much of a tribute to the range of their lead star's talents and potential.
Even bigger than the words of writer/director Neil Drumming's debut film are the ideas and issue it touches upon, from hip-hop to homosexuality to the presidency of Barack Obama, whose historic election night provides the backdrop for for this evening in the life of three estranged friends/family who once upon a time formed a rap trio that briefly flirted with fortune and fame in the early '90s. In the here and now, however, the three find themselves in wildly different spaces both professionally and personally. Terry, a.k.a. DJ Malik (Darien Sills-Evans) remains active at the turntables, but hardly in the manner he had hoped and still wishes he can be, booking whatever for-hire gigs he can while vocally bemoaning the (d)evolution of the artform and scene; James (Gbenga Akkinagbe) is at the opposite end of the spectrum, truly a life removed from his former music career and persona as smooth-talking ladies' man, now a successful, and openly gay, book publicist; floating somewhere between the two is James's cousin John (Dorian Missick), whose wanderings around the city--and ambiguous relationship--with an exotic dancer/aspiring singer (Yaya Alafia) reflects the ongoing uncertainty of his greater existence as he bounces from job to job in the IT sector as big words (his old rap moniker, as it happens) continue to flow into poetically stream-of-consciousness rhymes in his head.
As can be expected, as disparate as their individual journeys are, they are all destined to converge on this monumental night, but that's about the only expected move that Drumming pulls. When one of James's co-workers brings to him a book idea that would involve exploring his long-gone days with the group, the stage appears to be inevitably set for a triumphant, feel-good comeback arc. But as Drumming for the next hour or so patiently explores and richly fleshes out each of the former trio's current state of life and, above all else, state of mind, he just as clearly shows how such a prospect is an impossibility, just as much for the fundamental conflicts of goals and personalities as it is for the drama and trauma of the past. That Drumming doesn't completely spell out every detail of how the dream all went wrong works to reinforce that greater idea, what with their differing perspectives and hence very different memories of key incidents--and the nuances and layers his gifted actors bring to these complicated, all too real characters and dynamics between them speak far more loudly than any written or spoken word, no matter how big. As weighty and charged as this all sounds (and does, indeed, often play), Drumming's message and outlook are ultimately positive ones--though not as heavy-handedly executed as the 2008 election night backdrop would suggest. Indeed, "hope" and "change" are in the offing, but much like the intervening real world years have shown and proven, results, much less drastic ones, is hardly immediate--but whatever moves made, however small, on any given night, to bring about any change toward achieving any hope is significant progress.