Ever seeing “Amu” six years ago, the narrative film based on the 1984 Sikh massacres in India, I have made a point of attending screenings for any film dealing with the Sikhs. As a dramatic subject entailing both human and social dimensions of enormous weight, I can’t imagine any other people better suited for cinematic treatment. As the quintessential underdog from their inception as one of the world’s latest major religions, the Sikhs have been in a constant struggle to defend their rights and their identity against intolerant and more powerful social forces—starting with India’s Moghul rulers in the fifteenth century. As was the case with Christianity in its earliest phases, the Sikh religion was opposed to an unjust social order and ready to suffer martyrdom on behalf of its values. That struggle continues to this day.
The two films under consideration here have athlete protagonists. “Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag” (Run, Milkha, Run) is inspired by the true-life achievements of runner Milkha Singh. Known as “The Flying Sikh”, Singh (still alive at the age of 77) represented India in the 1960 Rome Olympics as well as many Commonwealth games. Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who appeared at a press screening on Wednesday, stated he was not seeking to make a biopic. Since the film is solidly within the Bollywood genre, it is hard to imagine it ever conforming to biopic literalism. As I will explain momentarily, Bollywood films operate within a totally artificial and completely romantic framework—hence their enormous appeal to this critic.
Made in 2011, “Breakaway” is a Canadian film about an all-Sikh ice hockey team. While not so nearly as realized artistically as “Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag”, it is definitely worth watching on Netflix streaming.
“Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag” opened yesterday at 10 theaters in Greater New York. For Manhattanites, the AMC 25 Theater on 234 West 42nd Street is the place to go. Since the publicist has advised me that it will be opening at over 120 theaters nationwide, my advice is to check your local listings if you want to spend three hours entertained and enlightened to the max.
Like so many sports movies based on historical figures, including the recent one about Jackie Robinson, this is essentially a tale about overcoming adversity. Milkha Singh was 12 years old when India was partitioned in 1947 and had the misfortune to be living with his parents and fellow Sikh villagers in the newly created state of Pakistan. When the Muslims told them that they had to convert to Islam in order to retain ownership of their land, the elders decided to stay and fight no matter how outnumbered they were. In one of the films most gripping scenes, you can see the men holding up their ceremonial swords and daggers, invoking the one-sided Battle of Chamkaur of 1705 in which 40 Sikhs went up against a million man Moghul army. As was the case earlier in history, all of the men in Milkha’s village were killed, as were the women and children. He narrowly escaped with his life.
When he ended up in a refugee camp in India on his own, he was only able to survive by joining a gang and becoming a petty thief. Fleeing from rival gangs and the cops sharpened his innate running skills.
In an effort to straighten out his life and provide for the woman he seeks to wed, Milkha joins the army. In basic training, after he comes in first in a 5-mile race, an officer recruits him to the track team. In a meet held at a nearby city, he wanders into a trophy room where he spies a blazer that belongs to a local champion runner. While innocently trying it on for size, the runner and his posse happen upon him. Convinced that he intended to steal it, they beat him into a pulp. This does not prevent him from facing the runner in a competition and besting him by at least 20 feet.
If you’ve seen “Chariots of Fire”, much of “Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag” will ring a bell. However, compared to the prosaic PBS Masterpiece Theater esthetic of “Chariots of Fire”, “Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag” soars like an eagle, especially in the song-and-dance scenes that will bring a smile to the face of all but the most cynical and jaded film viewer. In one of my favorite, Milkha’s comrades in the military get news that he has broken the 400-meter record. Their reaction is to begin dancing with each other in complete abandon, hands lifted to heaven. Wonderful.
Some notes about the principals of this remarkable film are in order. 50-year old director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra competed as a swimmer in the 1982 Asian Games so he understands the big-time competition scene from the inside. After starting out as a vacuum cleaner salesman, he ended up filming TV commercials just like Ridley Scott. From there, it was straight on to Bollywood. Besides making films, he is an outspoken critic of India’s grade-driven education system. If you’ve seen the satire “Three Idiots”, you will be familiar with how this ludicrous system works.
Although he is 39 years old, Farhan Akhtar is utterly convincing in his role as the young Milkha Singh. Like the director, Akhtar does not shy away from making statements about Indian society. In 2007, he directed “Positive”, a 12 minute short about HIV/AIDS in India. According to Wikipedia, he stated: “Just as a social stigma, many people believe that an HIV patient should be isolated. They also have certain misconceptions about dealing with the disease. And since India has a lot of joint families; it becomes very important for them to understand the value of support to the person who has acquired this disease. This is exactly what Positive talks about.” Akhtar also founded Men Against Rape and Discrimination in 2013, not long after a Mumbai lawyer was raped and then killed by her home watchman.
“Breakaway” is a very old-fashioned movie about a father and son conflict over traditional values, including religion. A Sikh youth loves ice hockey, something his father regards as a waste of time. Its closest relatives are “The Jazz Singer” and “Body and Soul”, two classics involving Jewish households in struggle. In the first, the first “talkie” ever made, Al Jolson pursues a career as a Broadway song and dance man against the wishes of his father, a cantor or liturgical singer. “Body and Soul” is a bit closer to “Breakaway” in spirit since it is the story of a young Jew who enters the boxing ring in order to put food on the table of his widowed mom. A key bit of dialog from the film:
Charlie: Shorty! Shorty, get me that fight from Quinn. I want money. Do you understand? Money, money!
Mama: I forbid, I forbid. Better buy a gun and shoot yourself.
Charlie: You need MONEY to buy a gun!
A more recent inspiration along these lines is “Bend it like Beckham”, about an 18 year old girl who wants to play soccer despite the wishes of her Sikh parents.
The Charlie of “Breakaway” is one Rajveer Singh, a young amateur ice hockey player who is on the same team with other Sikhs who make up in spirit what they lack in skill. (Vijay Virmani, who co-wrote the script, plays Singh.) After goons from a rival team called the Hammerheads push them around early in the film, they call upon Dan Winters (Rob Lowe) who spent a brief time as a pro to sharpen their skills. It might occur to film buffs that “The Karate Kid” is as much of an inspiration as the warhorses mentioned above. Everybody loves a loser who eventually triumphs against all odds.
Ravjeer’s dad owns a trucking business called “The Speedy Singhs” that he is grooming his son to take over one day. For that plan to succeed, the son has to put all that ice hockey nonsense behind him. His father is also disappointed that Ravjeer cut his hair while in high school and stopped wearing a turban. When other kids on the ice always aimed the puck at his turban, he decided that it was more important to be an athlete than a Sikh.
Key to the rise of Ravjeer’s team that now calls itself “The Speedy Singhs” is Dan Winters’s expert coaching as well as the addition of an “enforcer”, a massive Sikh who played ice hockey as a kid.
As they are about to enter a tournament, they get word from the officials that they cannot participate wearing turbans. It is helmets or else. Ravjeer comes up with the perfect solution. He designs and has made hockey helmets that are modeled after those worn by Sikh warriors of the 15th century when they went into battle against the Mughals.
The issue of turbans goes to the very heart of Sikh identity. After 2001, racist Americans began to beat up or harass Sikhs on the assumption that they were Muslims. The most brutal incident occurred only last August when a gunman entered a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin killing six worshippers.
If they are not dealing with such terror, they are also fighting against the same kinds of discrimination Ravjeer’s team faced in ice hockey competition. If they wore turbans, they would be excluded. Last week the N.Y. Times reported on the obstacles facing Sikhs who are trying to make a career in the military:
The Sikhs of northwestern India have for centuries cherished their rich military history. Wearing long beards and turbans into combat, they have battled Mughals in Punjab, Afghans near the Khyber Pass and Germans in the bloody trenches of the Somme.
But when Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an American Sikh raised in New Jersey, signed up for the United States Army, that tradition counted for nothing. Before sending him to officer basic training, the Army told him that he would have to give up the basic symbols of his religion: his beard, knee-length hair and turban.
In good Sikh tradition, he resisted. Armed with petitions and Congressional letters, he waged a two-year campaign that in 2009 resulted in the Army granting him a special exception for his unshorn hair, the first such accommodation to a policy established in the 1980s.
Since then, two other Sikhs have won accommodations from the Army. But many others have failed. And so now, as he prepares to leave active duty, Major Kalsi, who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan, is waging a new campaign: to rescind those strict rules that he believes have blocked hundreds of Sikhs from joining the military.
“Folks say, ‘If you really want to serve, why don’t you cut your beard?’ ” said Major Kalsi, a doctor who is the medical director of emergency medical services at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. “But asking a person to choose between religion and country, that’s not who we are as a nation. We’re better than that. We can be Sikhs and soldiers at the same time.”
I imagine that some of my lefty friends might have the same reaction they had about gays trying to become soldiers. They sneer at the idea of anybody joining the evil military, obviously forgetting about the efforts of Blacks to eliminate Jim Crow in the services. My attitude is that no job should be reserved exclusively for white Christian men, whether it is the police department, fire department or army. This is essential to any democracy. With American democracy under siege from all quarters, it helps everybody when Sikhs fight for their rights.
Finally, some thoughts on the paradox of Sikhs as military men. While it is true that the British relied on them as crack troops in maintaining colonial law and order, their fearlessness and prowess also became instrumental in getting rid of colonialism.
Recent studies of Indian radical history have convinced me that the story of Sikhs as revolutionary fighters is one of the most underreported stories of the last 100 years. More has to be said about Bhagat Singh, who became the leader of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) in the 1920s. After he and another revolutionary threw bombs and leaflets into the British-controlled legislature, he was arrested, tried and sentenced to death in 1931 at the age of 23. Everybody knows about Gandhi but we should know more about Bhagat Singh.
We must also know more about the life of Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, the founder of the Ghadar Party that sought to remove Britain from India by any means necessary, as Malcolm X once put it. As Wikipedia reports, Sohan Singh’s story is also the story of the American left:
Sohan Singh soon found work as a labourer in a timber mill being constructed near the city. In this first decade of the 1900s, the Pacific coast of North America saw large scale Indian immigration. A large proportion of the immigrants were especially from Punjab British India which was facing an economic depression and agrarian unrest. The Canadian government met this influx with a series of legislations aimed at limiting the entry of South Asians into Canada, and restricting the political rights of those already in the country. The Punjabi community had hitherto been an important loyal force for the British Empire and the Commonwealth, and the community had expected, to honour its commitment, equal welcome and rights from the British and commonwealth governments as extended to British and white immigrants. These legislations fed growing discontent, protests and anti-colonial sentiments within the community.
If you find yourself asking why all these Sikh men have the same last name (Singh means lion; women are named Kaur or princess), a Sikh website provides the most revealing answer:
Q: Why do Sikh men have the last name Singh and all women, have the last name Kaur?
A: Singh means a lion and Kaur means a princess. In Sikhism these titles eliminate discrimination based on “family name” (which denotes a specific caste) and reinforces that all humans are sovereigns and equal under God.
This tradition started because through the last name one could distinguish what caste one belongs to. Just by knowing the last name they would say, “Oh, you are the lowest” or “You are the middle” or “You are from high class”. Thus Sikh Gurus eliminated the last name from all the Sikhs so that no one could distinguish the caste and achieved equality for all Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh Ji gave Singh as a last name to all the Sikh men and Kaur to all the Sikh women.
Women were not treated equally before the time of the Sikh Gurus, and so to ensure equality, a movement for women’s liberation was started five hundred years ago with the Sikh faith. The Guru said, “You are my beloved princesses, my daughters. You must be respected. How can this world be without you?” He cautioned men for being rude and bad to women. He said, “Without women this world cannot be. So, give them the rights, and give them equal respect they deserve.” Women are humans and all humans deserve equal rights.
Normally, when a woman would get married, she would take the last name of the family she gets married into. Since Guru eliminated the last name, he said, “You don’t have to take anybody else’s name. You are an individual, you are a princess, and you can keep Kaur as your last name.” It gave women a lot of self-respect.