2-8 August 2013 #667

Run, Milkha run

Biopic of India’s most famous athlete distorts his determination
Ajaz Ashraf
Beyond the debate over what is fact and fiction in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the new Bollywood biopic of the 1960s Indian Olympic athlete, the film’s most troubling aspects are the unidimensional depiction of the horrors of the partition of India and Pakistan. The plot is in variance with Milkha Singh’s own account to the Times of India, which conducted the interview with him four years ago but decided to can it until the film’s release.

No doubt, the Partition traumatised Milkha Singh, as he was witness to the killing of his 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” (Run, Milkha, run) was what his father screamed as he lay dying during the birth of Pakistan. Milkha’s race loss is consequently linked to the partition. From it springs the problem the film seeks to answer is: How does the athlete, and implicitly therefore all of us, overcome the disabling memory of the past?

From the ahistorical plot, it would seem there was no bloodshed in India, no targeted slaughtering of Muslims. 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 to vanquish Hindu-Sikh India.

It can be argued that a biopic can’t but portray the world through the perspective of the protagonist. Is Bhaag, therefore, Milkha’s memory of the partition? It seems not, because the athlete tells the newspaper: “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 was also not the scrawny child as shown in the film. Might not Milkha’s age have been manipulated to inject greater emotional content for rendering credible the 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…”

Trains full of dead bodies, we know through other narratives, provoked massacres in both India and Pakistan, but this perspective is simply cast aside in the film. Such one-sided narratives of the partition have been assiduously spun in both India and Pakistan to fan feelings of victimhood.

The film also tampers with another historical event: the holding of the Indo-Pakistan 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 failed to bag an Olympic medal in Rome. Perhaps the sanitised version of the partition demanded that Milkha overcome his traumatic past on Pakistani soil.

Milkha visits his village, kneels down and cries bitterly, presumably exorcising himself of the ghosts of the past. Invigorated, he runs the race of his lifetime, doesn’t glance back, and eclipses his Pakistani rival. Stunned Pakistanis give him a standing ovation and Field Marshal Ayub Khan bestows on the victorious Indian the title of Flying Sikh.

What is 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 is that he ensured the scars of his life didn’t impede him from chasing his dreams, nor turn him viciously bitter. In contrast, Bhaag’s depiction of him is subtly dressed up in marketable jingoism.

Ajaz Ashraf was for the last 12 years deputy editor at Outlook magazine in India. He contributes this weekly column, Look Out, to Nepali Times.

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