Life’s most traumatic cemetery is surely the memory of pain, for it is buried but not dead. Neither amnesia nor vengeance is a solution, although the timid find solace in the first and the violent seek options in the second. Individuals, communities, nations have to find the spirit that can liberate them from the bonds of past anguish, to discover a future in a new perspective that is something far more than a distorted reflection of fear.
It is not often that a Bollywood film can lay claim to that cleansing experience called catharsis, but Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a film made by Indians inspired by a vision of the future from the countless narratives of that terrible past called partition. They recognise the great dangers in single-tunnel truth, for it can so easily turn a script into a game of vindictive flames. But Milkha is not just another Friday release; its bleak landscape blossoms with many shades of subtlety woven into events and characterisation.
The box office is always tempted by simplicity. Good and evil must be caricatures. The formula is uncomplicated. Laugh in the beginning, cry in the middle, find relief at the end, go home happy. But this is a film about reality, not exaggerations. Nothing is overdrawn, nothing is underwritten.
Milkha’s childhood is destroyed by the slaughter of most of his family in the Punjab that went to Pakistan. Out of this holocaust emerge real people, not saints and sinners. Milkha runs, reaches a refugee camp in Delhi and finds his way through loneliness, despair and a lost first love, before discovering that unfathomable elixir of indomitable spirit that turns a child who might have become hardened criminal into an international athletic superstar. His best childhood friend, a Hindu boy who trudged to a Maulvi’s school with him, finds survival through another process, and who can say that this was less agony? The Hindu lives through 1947 by converting. The point is made simply, without fuss, without accusation or praise, as a choice human beings make when torn between life and death. One of the great tragedies is that nearly seven decades later, the few Hindus left in Pakistan are still sometimes forced into such an awful debate with their conscience.
Filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s sensitivity and genius is at its nuanced best when, almost surreptiously, he depicts violence in all its myriad evil.
There is no difference between Indians and Pakistanis; we are the same people, with the same weaknesses and strengths. If the two partitioned neighbours have evolved differently, it is because they are influenced by their root ideology. The ideologues who inflict violence within Pakistan have not understood a very simple truth: if your mission is to search for someone to hate, you will continue to find them. Yesterday they were Sikhs and Hindus, today they might be Shias or Barelvis or whoever interferes with some fantasy of an artificial purity.
Filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s sensitivity and genius is at its nuanced best when, almost surreptitiously, he depicts violence in all its myriad evil, including the many forms which we compartmentalize into “lesser” categories. The tight, ringing slap of a husband across the face of a wife who did not respond to a demand for instant sex in a refugee camp is also madness mixed with hatred. Milkha’s girlfriend is dragged, screaming, into an arranged marriage while he is away, trying to prove that he can succeed in something more than petty crime. When he discovers his loss, his old friend from the mohalla puts it plainly: you know how we Indians treat women. Sonam Kapur, in the role of girlfriend, appears briefly, perhaps spanning fifteen minutes of a film that exceeds 180. Any commercial movie which stars a missing heroine is blessed with calm self-assurance. I will not mention the denouement, except to indicate that it will surprise those who enter the theatre with pre-conceived notions.
Those who believe are all, in a sense, convicts of their conviction. The ideology of a humane spirit, soaring towards the unbelievable, is also infectious, and it lifts every aspect of this film. Farhan Akhtar has put in a performance that is beyond mere awards. The lyrics of Prasoon Joshi, the music of Ehsan-Loy are transformative. Both might work better in the film than outside, in cafes or radio, but that is an asset, not a liability.
Mahatma Gandhi is mentioned once, as a reason for a holiday. Perhaps this is deliberate, because Gandhi has now become synonymous with preachy, and no one has time for sermons. But Gandhi left us with a lesson that saved India in 1947 and the years beyond; and is now resonating through the world. Violence destroys both perpetrator and victim. Violence sucks compassion out of our heart, and turns it into a barren desert enveloped by the mirage of rage. Even violence in the cause of justice, which is necessary for order and civilization, can devastate beyond its purpose, as the final metaphor of Mahabharata tells us with unambiguous pain.
Gandhi wrote the history of the future, not a history of the past.