Bollywood Sports Drama Targets Crossover Success

Farhan Akhtar as "the Flying Sikh," Milkha Singh.

Acclaimed writer-director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra hopes his new biopic "Run Milkha Run" will take "baby steps" toward winning a global audience for Indian films.

The new Indian drama Bhag Milkha Bhag (Run Milkha Run) does something almost unheard of in the annals of biographical sports pictures: It begins not with a moment of triumph for its central character but with his most agonizing moment of defeat, when he went in as the favorite in the 400-meter but finished without a medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960.

Sprinter Milkha Singh, popularly known as "The Flying Sikh," had won gold medals at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games in 1958, and set a world record in the 400-meter of 45.6 seconds. But in that crucial race in Rome, he did something unthinkable in the discipline of running. While leading the field, he turned to look back over his shoulder, and then fell behind, finishing in fourth place.

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"That incident was the fulcrum of my thinking about the story," says the film’s writer-director, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. "The film is not about athletics, and it is definitively not a conventional biopic. It is the story of a man who lost his most important race but won in life. It is the opposite of the story of Raging Bull, in a way, in which Jake LaMotta wins his most important fight but loses in life."

Mehra began thinking about telling Singh's story almost five years ago, when he chanced upon the runner's autobiography and had it translated from Punjabi. "All the folklore of Milkha Singh came back to me. As a young man I was a competitive swimmer, and we used to practice in the same stadium where he had trained 30 years before. We were always given Milkha Singh as a reference point -- his passion, his dedication -- and that left an indelible mark. I've always felt that a deep connection with the subject was necessary for me to tell a story properly, and I felt that with him."

Mehra adds that he was especially intrigued by the “astonishing odds” that Milkha had to overcome: “During the period of Partition in the Punjab in 1947, which split Pakistan off from India, Milkha witnessed the massacre of his mother in front of his eyes, of his father, his three sisters, his four brothers, the whole village. There was a mass funeral afterwards for two or three thousand people. He somehow ran away from there and ended up in a refugee camp in Delhi. So how does someone who has been through all that, who has no parents, no home, no clothes, no shoes -- how does a person in that position pull themselves up and go on to become a world beater, a person who less than 10 years later was setting records as a runner that stood for decades?"

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In this, Bhag Milkha Bhag appears to be connected thematically with the most prominent of Mehra's three earlier features, Rang De Basanti (Color It Saffron, 2006), which was made to address what Mehra saw as a lack of political engagement among complacent young people in 21st century India.

Rang De Basanti’s central characters form a group of apolitical slacker college students in Delhi, led by a superstar Aamir Khan, who are recruited as castmembers for a low-budget film about key figures of the Indian independence movement, such as Bhagat Singh and Chandra Shekhar Azad. Eventually they are moved to emulate the heroes they have portrayed by staging protests of their own.”

The film was India's Oscar submission that year and became a cultural phenomenon, inspiring real-life demonstrations against government corruption. For Mehra, Milkha Singh, too, is a role model of a type that is sorely needed, and not only in India.

"I think that Milkha's story has qualities that make it universal,” he says. “Here is a kid who did not have parents, who had never gone to school, who at the age of 12 picked up a knife and joined a gang and mingled with hardened criminals -- and yet that kid chose not to go down that path. If he can do it, imagine what the generation of today could accomplish, with the advantages that they have. There is no reason for anybody to complain anymore!"

Because athletics are popular everywhere, and because Singh’s story of triumph over huge deficits could resonate "anywhere that people have suffered adversity or oppression," Mehra hopes that with Bhag Milkha Bhag he can take "at least some baby steps toward world cinema, toward speaking to a world audience."

Referring to distribution patterns instituted in India to help combat rampant video piracy, Mehra says he feels “confined by the fact that Indian films open day-and-date all over the world, in India and in the Indian diaspora, and then go away. You want more people to see your films. So we are planning to make a 'world cut' of the film over the next three to six months to distribute in other ways. I will take it door-to-door to festivals and distributors and hope that it will find acceptance. And if it doesn't, I will try again, because you learn from everything."