Film reviews: Indian Film Festival: Qissa and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag


Indian/ German co-production Qissa (the title roughly means ‘fable’) is powerful and at times disturbing mix of family drama, social commentary and supernatural fantasy that provides a sobering view of the status of women in India.

Set during the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, the film features Life of Pi’s Irrfan Khan as Umber Singh an authoritarian and often violent father who flees with his young family to the Punjab region of India.  With three daughters he has become desperate to produce a son to continue his family name.  When his wife (Tisca Chopra) gives birth to another girl, Umber insists that the child (Kanwar) is actually a boy and raises Kanwar on what he believes are manly activities like wrestling and bear shooting.  As a teenager Kanwar (Tillotama Shome) even marries gypsy girl Neeli (Rasika Dugal) but a life of enforced deception can only have tragic consequences.

Qissa is an unusual but thoroughly engrossing film.  This is in no small part due to the superb performances from the cast.  Irrfan Khan switches convincingly from doting father to violent, murderous brute while Tillotama Shome brilliantly conveys the fear, determination and confusion of someone forced to live a lie.

This is also a visually striking film with remarkable shots of vast landscapes and teeming, cluttered city streets all of which are captured in grim, muted colours that feed an ever-present sense of menace.  A wonderful, melancholic score by Béatrice Thiriet adds to the unsettling mood. 

For western audiences the film is also a vivid introduction to aspects of Sikh culture.

Qissa introduces some unusual elements the most striking of which is a ghost late in the film.  This at first jars with what is otherwise a grittily realistic story although the significance of this apparition in conveying the cycle of life and the inescapable tyranny of the world for women such as Kanwar and Neeli soon becomes apparent.

India’s religious and political division from Pakistan is not explored in great detail but the sense of a nation with a damaged identity resonates throughout this story of people forced to conceal their true selves.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Fable/ drama.

Director(s): Anup Singh.

Running time: 109 mins.



Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Run Milkha Run)

Like Chariots of Fire ,Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a true story of an Olympic sprinter who battled obstacles far greater than the rigours of the sport itself. 

The film recounts the life of Milkha Singh (Farhan Akhtar) who represented India at Olympic and Commonwealth Games level in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  As a child, Milkha was orphaned after his family was slaughtered in the partition of India in 1947.  Moving in with his older sister he was heading for a criminal career with a local street gang when he decided to join the army.  There, an athletics coach (Pavan Malhotra ) saw considerable promise in Milkha and encouraged him to compete in the 400m sprint. Milkha won gold at the Commonwealth Games of 1958 and set numerous Indian national records. The film suggests, however, that, Despite Milkha’s remarkable success, his performances were often undermined by traumatic memories of the brutality he witnessed in what is now Pakistan.

This is an often inspiring film that reaches beyond the ambitions of a typical sports movie.  The film makes effective use of the India/ Pakistan political backdrop and forges in the character of Milkha a genuinely sympathetic figure.  It’s also wonderfully filmed by cinematographer Binod Pradhan who, along with art director Sandeep Sharad Ravade, convincingly captures the 1950’s/ 60’s era  without indulging in too many over the top retro references.

Still the film has its problems, most notably odd tonal shifts from gritty drama to cheesy sentiment to quirky comedy.  There are even some bizarre musical numbers with the weirdest being a cringe-worthy line dancing exhibition in what is supposed to be an inner-city Melbourne pub when Milkha visits for the 1956 Olympics.  Also, despite being set in the 50’s and early 60’s the film’s soundtrack is full of squalling heavy metal music. 

Fortunately, these flaws are only minor irritations and don’t seriously undermine this rousing story of a man who overcame an appalling start in life to become a national icon.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Sport/ drama.

Director(s): Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra.

Running time: 186 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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