Beyond the debate over what is fact and fiction in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, its most troubling aspects are the unidimensional depiction of the horrors of Partition and the viewing of the champion athlete through the lens of jingoism. This is at variance with Milkha Singh’s own account to the Times of India’s Crest edition, which conducted the interview with him four years ago but decided to can it until the film’s release.
No doubt, the ghastliness of the Partition traumatized Milkha Singh, as it would any child who has witnessed the killing of his or her parents. In the interview to the newspaper, Milkha says it is one of the two experiences of his life he can never forget. The other was the medal he missed in the 1960 Rome Olympics. The film etches out the disabling aspect of his trauma through the symbolism of looking back, thus injecting a profound meaning to his inexplicable decision to glance behind, as he ran the scorching 400m race in Rome. This momentary lapse of concentration cost Milkha a medal.
This lapse, we are told, has a story: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was what his father had screamed as he lay dying from the wounds Muslims in Pakistan had inflicted on him. Milkha’s fiasco is consequently linked to the Partition. From it springs the problem the film seeks to answer: how does the athlete – and implicitly, therefore, all of us – overcome the disabling memory of his past?
It is decidedly a sound question to ask. But what is not is the ahistorical portrayal of the Partition. From the film, it would seem there was no blood-spill in India, no targeted slaughtering of Muslims, no hapless orphan left to overcome his or her ordeal. The religious passion, of which Milkha’s parents were victim, did not abate, evident from the structuring of the competition between the ace Indian athlete and the duo of the Pakistani sprinter and his coach, whose only motivation seems bringing glory to their nation through the vanquishing of Hindu-Sikh India.
It can be well argued that a biopic can’t but portray the world of 1947 through the perspective of the individual. Is Bhaag, therefore, Milkha’s memory of the Partition, too? It seems not, for in his interview to the TOI’s Crest edition, the athlete appears aware of the dynamics that fuelled the Partition. “Our Muslim neighbours, even those in the neighbouring villages, they didn’t say anything. But what proved the flashpoint was that those trains which left from there into India and those which came back, all contained corpses. It immediately aggravated the issue.”
Milkha also says he was 17-18 years old then. Perhaps he was younger, as many of his generation did not record their precise date of birth. But he was definitely not the scrawny child as shown in the film. For instance, he says in the interview that he kept guard during those tumultuous nights. Might not Milkha’s age have been manipulated to inject greater emotional content for rendering credible the unidimensional narrative of the Partition which, in many ways, echoes the memory of the tragedy refracted through the Hindutva prism?
Indeed, Milkha remembers the tragedy differently. He says in the interview that trains full of dead bodies prompted the outsiders to incite the Muslim villagers, who were told “why were they letting kafirs live around them when the dead bodies of Muslim brothers are being sent from there (India). Kill them, chase them away.” Trains full of dead bodies, we know through other narratives, provoked ineffable horror on both sides of the newly drawn border, but this perspective is simply cast aside. Such one-sided narratives of the Partition have been assiduously spun both in India and Pakistan to fan ideas and feelings of victimhood.
The film also tampers with another historical event – the holding of Indo-Pak friendship athletics meet in Lahore. In the reel-life, it is shown to have taken place following the Rome Olympics. The chronology was in fact the reverse: the Lahore meet happened months before Milkha glanced back to dash his hope of winning an Olympic medal. Perhaps the sanitized version of the Partition demanded that Milkha overcome his traumatic past, as also redeem himself in his own eyes, on Pakistani soil.
This the film achieves through twists that are as bewildering as they are maudlin. Milkha rides a motorcycle to his village, kneels down and cries bitterly. Perhaps the inconsolable weeping exorcises Milkha of the ghost of the past. Invigorated, he runs the race of his lifetime, and doesn’t glance back, underscoring the therapeutic nature of his visit to his ancestral village. His speed not only eclipses the Pakistani rival, but prompts the Pakistanis to give him a standing ovation and inspires Field Marshal Ayub Khan to bestow on the victorious Indian the title of Flying Sikh.
What’s the message of this belated balancing act, its symbolism? Don’t look back at your traumatic past lest it hobbles you? Or that the only way of liberating the present from the past is to vanquish your rivals, and strike awe in them to the point they can’t but hail you? What kind of meaning does it hold out for those who are asked to forget the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and Gujarat 2002?
It is another matter that Milkha Singh is yet to visit his ancestral village in Pakistan, and hopes to fulfil his desire before he dies. The greatness of Milkha stems from the fact that he ensured the scars of his life didn’t impede him from chasing his dreams, nor turn him viciously bitter, in contrast to Bhaag’s depiction of him that’s subtly dressed up in jingoism which is eminently marketable.