Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
In Hindi, with English subtitles
3 hours 8 minutes; not rated
The Indian running champ Milkha Singh may be the hero of the over-the-top “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,” but this Bollywood film’s true, tormented heart lies in the brutal era of India’s partition. As a side character in the film puts it, Milkha — a k a “the Flying Sikh” — ran away from Pakistan and has been running ever since.
Partly just a supersize sports movie, “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” (which translates to “Run Milkha Run”) trails this runner, played by the Bollywood actor Farhan Akhtar, from his military training through noteworthy competitions in the 1950s at home and abroad. There are training montages, a dastardly rival, physically painful triumphs and a hard-driving but fair coach. The director, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (“Rang De Basanti,” “Delhi-6”), juices the action with archival snippets, eye-catching composite effects and, for a meet in Australia, square dancing and a buxom sheila (Rebecca Breeds).
But flashbacks dig ever deeper into old wounds to show the horrors that helped set Mr. Singh on his path and that haunt him still when he is later invited to peace games between India and Pakistan. Mr. Mehra wrenchingly returns to the brutal killing of Milkha’s family, and the surrounding events, as well as the indignities and perils of refugee life. Even Milkha’s first love, who gets the requisite courtship sequence, practically plays third to the past and the races.
There’s also, more typically of Bollywood dramas, ample showboating, stand-and-deliver acting and goofy bits of business. But along the way the movie strikes its chosen couple of notes resoundingly, making clear what makes Singh run.