As Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” is all set to run at cinema halls across the country, Milkha Singh, talks about the biopic.
Milkha Singh confesses he has not watched a movie since 1960, until the one that features him as the protagonist. It is his story. “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” is a biopic that celebrates one of the greatest athletes India has produced. He was born in undivided India and then suffered the fate that millions did in 1947, fleeing his native Multan, to land in a strange land that was to be his own a decade later when he scorched the tracks at athletic meet the world over. “I was born to run,” he muses.
“Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” is expected to become a hit, just as Milkha was with his inimitable running style that has been so impeccably portrayed by Farhan Akhtar on the screen. “The boy has done a remarkable job. It never feels that Farhan is acting. He is Milkha Singh on screen,” raves the veteran icon.
I remind Milkha of Don Bradman saying the same of Sachin Tendulkar. “Absolutely, Farhan has done a great job of replicating my running style, my mannerisms, my diction.” Milkha believes the movie, despite some fiction, is closest to the truth even though scriptwriter Prasoon Joshi acknowledges it not a mirror of Milkha Singh’s life but an interpretation of his life.
It is always a privilege to meet Milkha. He is short of time but accommodates the request. “What will you have?” he makes me feel at home in Chandigarh. The place is a virtual museum. Medals and old pictures, documenting some landmark moments in his illustrious life, adorn the walls of the well-kept residence. Milkha is elegantly dressed, well ironed trousers, shining black shoes, a tie that matches his turban, and the inseparable blazer. His army days have stood him well.
At 82, Milkha appears a forgotten man in Indian sport. There has hardly been a role assigned to him in athletic circles. He does not lament or regret. A fiery personality once, he is a much mellowed man now. Will “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” reflect the true Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh, who was a huge draw at competitions, a bigger star than cricketers?
“This is a true story. From the time I escaped from Multan (in Pakistan) to land at Delhi Railway Station and my subsequent struggle for existence. The movie would tell this generation who Milkha is? They (the directors) read my story and wanted to make movies. I was approached by many in the past too. I had fabulous offers too. They competed among themselves but I was honestly never interested. This time my son (golfer Jeev) took the decision and said yes to Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra.”
How did Mehra clinch the deal? Says Milkha, “Jeev is a movie freak! On tours, he fights boredom by seeing movies, almost one a day. He had seen ‘Rang De Basanti’ and was convinced that Mehra was the director to make a movie on me. He told me we shall give the rights for one rupee and I am glad I agreed to Jeev’s idea. The movie is just too good.”
A peep into his past brings out the movie buff in Milkha too. “I told you I have not seen a movie after 1960 or so. But I used to watch cinema regularly. I have seen ‘Awara’, ‘Shree 420’, ‘Mother India’, ‘Mahal’ repeatedly. My favourite stars were Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor. I loved the songs of Lata (Mangeshkar) and (Mohammad) Rafi. After 60s, I lost interest in cinema.”
No heroines? Milkha blushes, “Ah! I loved Nargis, Madhubala, never missed their movies, never.”
The making of “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” brought back memories from those sad and happy days of his life as an athlete. “Farhan’s inquisitive nature, I would also say interrogation at times, confirmed his seriousness and commitment to the job. Farhan is outstanding. He is ditto Milkha. I see myself in him when I see the movie. I travelled to Mumbai quite a few times, Farhan also came home (in Chandigarh) to learn my style, details like my hill running, sand running, starts, my overall style. I explained and he heard them with patience and sincerity. It helped that he was an athlete. He used to run 100m and would often win the races at school. He was able to quickly grasp my inputs. An athlete could understand an athlete. Farhan picked the lessons very fast; the young man has made such a huge impression. People who have seen the trailer are just raving about him.”
“Bhaag Milkha Bhaag”, insists Milkha, will set a trend on bio-pics featuring sportspersons. “It is superb not because it features me; you will agree when you see it. There is something about the movie that convinces me I made the right decision to have Farhan playing my role and Mehra directing it. They have done a wonderful job and you will see.”
The movie on Milkha follows “Paan Singh Tomar,” the eponymous film on a medal winning athlete who late became an outlaw. “I met Paan once (in Defence Colony) after he had become a dacoit,” confesses Milkha. He would not mind watching “Paan Singh Tomar”, so beautifully portrayed on screen by the gifted Irrfan Khan.
Milkha appears exhausted. His wife, Nirmal, recuperating from a hip injury, has a comment to add to the story. “I have fallen in love with Farhan Akhtar.” Why not? Farhan reminds her of the young and dashing Milkha, who quips, “She is my best medal of all.” I take leave with their laughter a pleasant moment to savour.