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A Rabbinic Take on 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag'

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The following review is part of the Kosher Movies project, in which Rabbi Herb Cohen gleans life lessons from the world of film.

In my class of eighth graders, we read a story entitled 'A Retrieved Reformation" by the celebrated short story writer O. Henry. It is about Jimmy Valentine, a career safe cracker who resolves to become an honest man after his release from prison. The students discussed Jimmy's reformation making references to the seminal concept of repentance in Jewish law, even citing the semi-holiday of the Second Passover, which was observed by those who were legitimately prevented from observing the first. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is an archetypal story of second chances, but set within the tumultuous landscape of Indian and Pakistani politics in the late 1940s.

The film opens in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, where Milkha, representing India, loses his race because of a backward glance down the final stretch of the race. Thus begins a flashback to Milkha's own tortuous past in which he and his parents were separated because of a politically-motivated land division between India and Pakistan, leaving his parent's property in a no man's land between the two countries. Left alone, Milkha joins a local gang and steals in order to survive. This life of a brigand continues until, as a young man, he meets Biro, a beautiful Indian woman. He then resolves to turn over a new leaf in life and emerge an honest man, respected by Biro, his beloved, and by all men as well. She promises to wait for him until he transforms himself from thief to a respected man of position in society. Unfortunately while he is gone, Biro's father marries off his daughter, against her will, to someone else, and Milkha's dreams are shattered when he returns a few years later to ask her to marry him.

Time passes and Milkha ultimately finds himself in the Indian military. It is there that his running skills are noticed and developed. Proverbs tells us the righteous fall many times, but they invariably rise again to meet the next challenge. This is the journey of Milkha who does not make excuses for failure, but rather admits his mistakes and resolves to try harder at his next effort.

An especially effective scene is one that takes place in the aftermath of a racing loss. He determines that he needs to be stronger and so runs over rough terrain with weights on his legs pulling a tire behind him. Indeed, Milkha travels a long and hard road to running success under the eye of watchful and caring coaches, and to eventual redemption as a human being. The end is truly uplifting. He is finally able to transcend his past and redefine himself as a person of worth.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a vibrant narrative of a world class athlete who overcomes many obstacles to become a champion. What separates it from similar stories is the wildly colorful way it indirectly celebrates the Indian way of life, which depicts the reality of both the joy and sadness of living a full life, and making the most of the gifts God has given us.

The movie is close to three hours long but is never boring. We see Milkha as a child relating lovingly to his parents and sister, observing violence perpetrated on loved ones in his native community, witnessing horrific tragedies, and we see him staring death in the face. We also see him as an adult wooing a beautiful girl, dancing and singing with his fellow soldiers, and winning races that bring him fame and adulation. Such is life as seen from the perspective of maturity. It is filled with agonies and ecstasies, sadness and joy, mistakes and mid-course corrections as we struggle to survive and triumph in a complicated world.

Rabbi Herb Cohen was a principal at Jewish high schools across America for three decades. He now resides in Israel and blogs weekly about the intersection of faith and film at