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The first glimpse of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag took everyone by surprise. A fairly simple composition, it showed actor Farhan Akhtar in a white jersey lunging towards the finishing line. What struck a chord, however, was the fact that he bore a striking resemblance to Milkha Singh, the Indian athlete he portrays in the movie — the same high cheekbones, sunken cheeks, clipped moustache and trimmed beard. The effect was magical and within a day, from being a film-in-the-making based on Singh's glorious sporting career, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag became one of the most awaited releases of the year.
The first video teaser boosted the impact: set to racy background notes, the taut visual shows Akhtar surging towards the finishing line, beads of sweat against sinewy arms, every inch the hero. But every inch the "cinematic" hero, said detractors. They argued that the real Milkha Singh was tall and lean. That Akhtar not only falls short by a few inches but also has a physique too chiselled to be true.
A national level swimmer in his youth, filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra spent his early years in the stadiums of Delhi where Milkha Singh was part of the lore and an inspiration to many. Coaches would recount stories from the legendary athlete's formidable career, adding bits that lay somewhere between truth and myth: that in his heyday, Singh apparently guzzled a litre of desi ghee, that he trained till he sweated a full bucket, that he didn't run but flew to the finishing line.
So when Mehra decided to make a film based on Singh, he allowed the lore to seep in. Mehra's Milkha in Akhtar, therefore, is that mythical figure. "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag isn't a biopic that chronicles Milkha Singh's achievements; a victim of Partition with a lost childhood, he succeeded both in life and athletics by sheer will. That is the story we are trying to tell through the film," Mehra says.
At the age of 14, Singh witnessed his parents' murder during the Partition and narrowly escaped death himself. He lived in a refugee camp after arriving in Delhi and struggled to feed himself. Years later, during his days in the Indian army, he discovered his potential for the track-and-field sport.
Making a film based on the athlete, therefore, meant treading the fine line between romanticism and sensitivity while relaying the incidents of his life and, at the same time, recreating the famous arenas across the world, such as Melbourne, Rome and Cardiff, where the Olympian participated. Mehra, 49, teamed up with his long-time friend and collaborator since Rang De Basanti, Prasoon Joshi for the script. A character-oriented film, the choice of actor, Mehra knew, could make or break the movie. "I had always admired Farhan," says Mehra who made an instinctive choice. "I had offered him a role in Rang De Basanti too, much before he made his debut."
The director-writer duo had numerous sessions with Singh over 18 months. Joshi admits that unlike Mehra, he wasn't well-versed with Singh's achievements but the athlete's journey was compelling. "Milkha Singh often quotes the lines, 'Azm tera bhi kuch haath hai taqdeerein banane mein, haathon ki lakeeron se taqdeerein nahi banti.' He attributes his achievements to hard work. But if you look at the mosaic of his life, it isn't simple. The incidents of his life must have had a subconscious effect on him. He may not be very articulate about it, but as a writer, I have to explore that and join the dots," says Joshi.
Their reputation could get them the rights to tell Singh's story but getting the man to trust them enough to share what isn't already known, took time and patience. "He is nearly 84; he had forgotten some things and blocked out some for the pain they caused him," says Joshi, who would let the conversations flow. Singh's wife of over 40 years and former captain of Indian women's volleyball team, Nirmal Kaur, helped too. The film captures Singh's life between 1947, when he was about 14 years old, and 1960s, the period considered his prime, but the team let him talk about his life in general, so they could understand the man.
Akhtar wasn't always present at these sessions. He wanted to interpret the character based on the script he had been provided. During the few meetings he had with Singh, he let him talk about his life, focusing on the emotions each story evoked. "His tone would change while recounting happy memories, sometimes his eyes would well up. I knew I wouldn't be able to project the same body language but I could lend the character the correct graph," he says. It helped that the film relies largely on emoting. "In an industry where everything is spelt out at least twice over, it was refreshing to play someone who doesn't mouth too many dialogues. The audience will understand everything Milkha feels by watching his body language and how other characters around him react towards him," he says.
What he did borrow was Singh's style of running. An athlete during his schooldays and keenly interested in sports, he believed his fitness would come in handy for the role. But he was proved wrong when a track-and-field instructor came on board. "I had to learn to run the way sprinters do; it is akin to changing your handwriting," Akhtar says with a laugh.
In the movie, he will compete against real international athletes — some of them national champions in their own countries — whom the Indian Olympic Association helped bring on board for the shoot. So as to look one among them, Akhtar worked towards attaining the physique of a 100 m and 400 m runner. He submitted to the instructor's rigorous regimen and trained for close to two months, but also set a personal benchmark for himself: to run 100 m in under 12 seconds. Timed a day before the shoot commenced, he had clocked 11.4 seconds, a mere two seconds short of the current 100 m world record, and on par with India's national record in the '70s. "Athletics is a grace event and I would have looked out of place had I not trained the way an athlete does," he says.
But while filming for a movie, where the perfect shot sometimes requires up to15 takes, achieving speed alone would have been of no use. So the training was focussed also on quick recovery. "I couldn't have run a few steps and stopped for every take because the tautness of muscles and look of hunger come only if you're giving it your all," says Akhtar, who sometimes resorted to pain killers and kept his feet in a bucket of ice for an hour between two shots.
Singh's childhood and the atrocities of Partition were shot in Firozpur, a quaint village by the Hussainiwala border between India-Pakistan in western Punjab. Largely controlled by the army, the population is sparse and only a few mud huts stand, making it an ideal substitute for Gobindpura, Singh's native village near Multan in Pakistan. "Somehow that part of Punjab hasn't witnessed the Green Revolution, so it offered us both the river and sand dunes that Singh famously ran across every day during his childhood in order to get to his madrassa," says Mehra.
Working on this particular portion, along with the time Singh spent at the refugee camp at Purana Quila in Delhi, was emotionally the most exhausting for Mehra. "An army official who served as a volunteer at the refugee camp had the most heart-rendering memories of those days. He had arrived one day to find the trees bare because the refugees, with nothing to eat, had consumed all the leaves," says Mehra who turned to Saadat Hasan Manto's stories to recreate the pathos.
The set for the refugee camp was put up at the Tughlaqabad Fort in Delhi. Over 500 tents were set up and members of the Sikh community from Seelampur, a resettlement colony in Delhi that has witnessed riots in the past, were brought in to play the refugees because Mehra felt they would best understand the sense of loss he wanted to capture.
Singh grew up in Shahdara, a resettlement colony in east Delhi. But shooting on location was impossible as the neighbourhood has changed over time. The team stumbled upon a location almost by chance, while searching for steam locomotives at the train shed in Rewari, Haryana, the only place in India which still houses and restores locomotives from the '40s. There, Mehra's team discovered a ghost colony built for railway employees by the British during their rule.
None of this, of course, would have been of use without the support the makers got from all quarters. Actors Prakash Raj (as Milkha's ustaad in the army), Sonam Kapoor (as Milkha's love interest) and most importantly, Singh himself, didn't charge Mehra a penny. The Pakistani army, upon request from their Indian counterparts, provided the film's costume head, Dolly Ahluwalia, with access to a tailor from Rawalpindi who used to stitch uniforms for their army in the '50s. They also sent the official insignia for the costume of Pakistani General Ayub Khan. The Olympic associations stepped in too, especially in Melbourne, providing them with archival material and access to sports museums for research. While the crew shot partly on location, the various races have been recreated using special effects.
Currently on the editing table, the film that is scheduled for release on July 12, admits Joshi, looks vastly different from the first draft he has written. Initially, it had a modern context and juxtaposed Singh's story with youngsters of today. But several drafts have since been written and discarded and the story has organically shed many characters who were earlier part of the film. "It is the story of a man who was an athlete by choice and he lost the most important race of his career but won in life. This became the one-line brief for me," Joshi says. Mehra wants his audience to take away a story of courage and hope. Akhtar explains it best when he says, "Having missed an Olympic medal by a whisker, Milkha Singh dreams that an Indian athlete will some day win a gold. This dream is what we want the audience to go back with."
'If I can do it, so can they'
Is it true you charged only Re 1 for the rights of the film?
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra approached us in 2011 and came to Chandigarh to discuss the rights of the movie. My son (golfer) Jeev Milkha Singh was in Chandigarh at that time and he was very eager to see the movie being made. He said, 'Dad, we will just take Re 1 for the rights of the movie,' and we did so. We spent a whole day with Rakeysh, and when I was convinced that this man will do justice to my story, we agreed. But we also asked them to contribute 10-15 per cent from the movie profits to our trust, through which we help former athletes and provide free medicine
to poor people and organise marriages of poor girls.
Take us back to the time when you first came to India.
It was the most tragic time of my life. My parents were killed in front of my eyes in my native village of Gobindpura in Pakistan's Muzaffargarh district. We were 15 brothers and sisters. Eight died before Partition and we lost three more to the riots. I ran more than 15 km to save my life and met an army convoy near Lahore. They dropped me at Ferozepur, which was flooded the same day. I managed to hold on to a chain at a dhobi ghat and that's how I survived. Later, I came to Delhi to my sister Ishar Kaur, but had to shift soon as her in-laws were unhappy.
So how did you start running?
It was difficult for a well-built Punjabi youth to sit idle at home. I was once caught travelling without a ticket in a train and was sent to jail for 15 days. I met some dacoits there and thought of becoming one. My sister had to sell her earrings to arrange for my bail that time and I thought that I have to do something. Sometime later, my brother Makhan Singh, who served in the British army during World War II, came to Delhi and on his insistence I joined the Indian army in Srinagar. When I was posted in Secunderabad in 1951, there was an announcement about a cross-country race and I enrolled for it. Bas agle 15 saal main daudta hi raha (For the next 15 years, I kept running). I was lucky to get people like my coaches Gurdev and Ranbir Singh. Paan Singh Tomar was my junior during the 1950s; he was very talented, but circumstances made him a dacoit.
What are your expectations from the film? Farhan Akhtar looks exactly like you in the promos...
I told my wife, munde ne tan kamal karta (this guy has done wonders). We wanted people to know about the hard work that I have done and hopefully, the movie will depict that. I trained with sandbags and would often vomit blood during training. Once during training in Patiala before the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, my fellow teammates in 400 m beat me up before the trials for the Olympics and I nearly died. But then my coach at that time, Ranbir Singh, persisted and I went on to participate in the trials. People say Milkha Singh always criticises Indian athletes. I only want to tell youngsters that we created a path and that's why results came. If I can do it, then a youngster who has all the means, can also do it.
What are your memories of your coaches?
My first coach Hawaldar Gurdev Singh was in the army with me. He would map my progress at the army barracks in Secunderabad. When I made it to the national camp, Ranbir Singh was my coach. Ranbir was the one coach who always stood by me. He would follow me even after training. He said he needed to know what I did after training and sometimes, when I went to meet my girlfriend (now his wife), he would sit at an adjoining table in the coffee house. My weekly routine, diet plans were all prepared by Ranbir. He is over 85 years now and unwell. He shifted to the US a few years ago and recently had a brain surgery. We met some years ago and talked a lot about our pasts.
Sonam Kapoor plays the role of your girlfriend in the movie. Did you have one?
When I came to Shahdara, Delhi, there used to be a girl whom I used to see at the community hand pump. We used to admire each other, but we never talked. We met during fairs and in the markets. We used to converse through letters concealed in cricket balls. Later, I joined the army and when I went to her home, I got to know that she had got married. She was the first love of my life. But I was not dejected. I knew that I was nothing at that time. Later, when I joined the army, I earned enough to get three meals a day. I saw the promos of the film recently and Sonam looks like her. My wife still teases me about this. I met my wife in Sri Lanka in 1955 and we married in 1962.
You earned the title of Flying Sikh in 1960 in Pakistan. The movie's climax is set in Lahore. Can you take us through that time?
When the invitation for the race came, I said no. Pakistan was the place where my parents were killed. I did not want to run there. But then Nehruji insisted and said it's a matter of national pride. When I crossed the border again, I felt sad, but my teammates egged me on. Abdul Khaliq was Pakistan's best runner. I still remember that before the race, some maulvis blessed Khaliq and ignored me. I told them, 'Sahib, hum bhi khuda ke bande hain (I am also a man of god),' and later after the race, they blessed me. When I was running the race, I was thinking about how I ran from Gobindpura to avoid death and maybe that's why general Ayub Khan believed I was flying and the title of Flying Sikh came up.
Step in Time
Jonathan Selvaraj/ Mihir Vasavda
Nearly 40 years after he competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, long jumper TC Yohannan clearly remembers the winning marks of the three medalists. "The gold went at 8.35m, the silver went at 8.11 and the bronze was just 8.02m," he says. It was an utterly disappointing moment for Yohannan for he knew he could have beaten at least the last mark. Just a couple of year's earlier at the 1974 Asian Games, he had leapt 8.07m, setting a new Asian record and a national record that would last for another 30 years.
But crucially at Montreal, Yohannan faltered. "In those days it was hard for us to get international exposure. At a stage like the Olympics that was very important," he says.The Olympics was Yohannan's fourth international event. He had competed at the Tehran Asian Games in 1974, the Asian Track and field Championships in 1975 and then an invitational tour of Japan the same year. Yohannan had won all those competitions but they were all held in the summer.
Montreal was very different. It was far colder than anywhere the Kerala jumper had been to and there were many more competitors. The key in such a situation was to keep the body warmed up. "This was something you learn through experience. I was the first long jumper from India to make it to the Olympics so everything was a new experience for me," Yohannan says.
The lack of international exposure aside, Yohannan says the facilities for training were spartan but sufficient. "I trained both at Jamshedpur where I worked for TELCO, in Patiala for the national camps and also at Bangalore," he says.
Yohannan would not get a chance to improve his performance at the Olympics. Training at Patiala for the Commonwealth Games, he badly twisted his leg while landing in a poorly prepared long jump pit. "Nearly all my knee ligaments were torn off. I spent six months in crutches. Even now, I find it difficult to bend my knee," he says. Recently retired, Yohannan is now looking to groom a new generation of youngsters by starting a long jump academy in Kerala.
October 18, 1964, Tokyo. Time: 2pm. Temperature: 14.2 degree Celsius. Gurbachan Singh Randhawa, 74, is disappointed that he doesn't quite remember the wind speed, but says he has it noted in his diary. A veteran of two Olympics, Randhawa took part in the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Games in 110m hurdles, high jump and decathlon events. One of the pioneers of the golden era of Indian athletes, Randhawa held the national record for 110m hurdles for close to 40 years and was the best in Asia in his pet event.
The road to glory, though, wasn't strewn with roses. "The biggest challenge was getting equipment, in our case, shoes. I used to get our shoes made at a local cobbler. He used to charge Rs 20, which was quite a big deal back then. And he never delivered on time. I would have to make at least five-six visits before he would finally hand me the pair of shoes," Randhawa says.
Like Milkha Singh, four years before him, Randhawa was given the opportunity to compete across Europe before the 1964 Tokyo Games. The exposure paid dividends. He was 25 then. And like Milkha, he too came agonisingly close to winning a medal in 1964. Randhawa remembers the race in vivid detail. "When I came out on the track for the semifinal, the temperature was 14.2 degrees. There was a chill in the air but I adapted to the conditions and managed to qualify for the final with a timing of 14 seconds," he recalls. "In between the semifinal and final, it rained heavily. The temperature fell to 13.6 degrees and the humidity increased. In such conditions, running on the cinder track wasn't easy. But it was one of the best races ever for me and I clocked 14 seconds again, finishing fifth."