One of India’s best-known athletes, who came perilously close to winning the country a medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, is the subject of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s new movie. Four years in the making, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag stars film-maker and occasional actor Farhan Akhtar as the athlete who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and escaped violence and poverty to become one of the best-known sporting icons of India. The 12 July release covers the life of Milkha Singh from 1947, when he was 12 and orphaned by Partition violence, to the 1960s, when he was India’s best bet in track and field events.

Mehra, who has previously made Aks (2001), the rapturously received Rang De Basanti (2006), and Delhi-6 (2009), has attempted a guts-and-glory biopic that celebrates the rise of the runner. Apart from Akhtar, the cast includes Art Malik as Singh’s father, Rebecca Breeds as the object of the runner’s attention, Dalip Tahil as Jawaharlal Nehru, cricketer Yograj Singh as the athlete’s coach and Sonam Kapoor as Nirmal Kaur, whom Milkha Singh married. The movie is about a sportsman as well as the struggle of one man, and the nation, to overcome adversity and make a run for greatness, says Mehra. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What were the challenges of making a biopic about someone who is a legend, but who might not be too familiar to contemporary audiences?

Farhan Akhtar in a still from the film

This kid grew up in a refugee camp, he joined a small gang that would rob coal and steal wheat and sugar to survive. He then joined the army as a jawan in his third attempt. He was a part of the support system—the guys who maintain the gardens and are given a rifle only in their third year of training. For someone who had nothing going for him and was up against so many odds, to go out and become not just a national but also an international icon—where did this come from? Was it an aberration or was it also because of his talent and his instinct for survival, to work towards pride for himself and the nation?

We are capturing his life from the age of 12 to about 29-30. We also capture his brush with romance—it is pivotal to what he told us about how he wanted to establish himself as a man of integrity so that he could deserve love. The film also deals with what happened at the Rome Olympics, where he finished fourth. What is it like to lose the most important race of your life but to win in life? That intrigued me as art.

Did you consider calling the movie by Singh’s unofficial title, The Flying Sikh?

I didn’t want to call the movie that since it would then get skewed towards sport. That he is an athlete gave me a lot of impetus, cinematic value and energy, which I could not have got from any other story. This is not just a sports film, it is a human story. Sport is incidental to that human.

What research went into the movie?

There is a lot of research available, and the man himself is a living legend. (Screenplay writer) Prasoon Joshi and I were extremely fortunate to spend 18 months with him. We spoke to him for many hours to understand what went into the making of the person. There was material available on the socio-economic and political situation prevailing in the country. The best available information is from the British Movietone newsreel archive, the Pathé film company and The British Library in London. I spent a lot of time there to create the ecosystem of the movie.

How challenging was it to recreate the post-independence years?

If you hunt hard enough, you find locations in India that are still trapped in time. We shot in a village in Ferozepur in Punjab for our first schedule. People still live in mud huts there, development hasn’t taken place in this part of the country. In Patiala, we found two running tracks that were made around the same time (Milkha was training). We also shot at the Rajasthan Rifles regiment barracks in the Delhi Cantonment.

We were hunting for steam locomotives that had been manufactured before the Partition, the pointed-nose engine ones. While the railways were overhauling the engine for us at Rewari (in Haryana), we discovered that the place used to be a toll-collection hub during the British times. There were sheds for locomotives, and around 7,000 railway personnel used to live there in quarters. Rewari is now like a ghost town, but some of the quarters are still there.

We had to dress up the villages a bit. The tar roads had to be covered with mud, and we took permission to get rid of the electricity poles. The most challenging part was to create the various stadia that don’t exist any more. There, state-of-the-art digital technology came to our rescue. The stadia were recreated and filled with people.

It sounds like a lot of work.

It was also a lot of fun. Work is fine, but you rarely get an opportunity to make such a film. I have tried to keep it as close to realism as possible. It’s not a stylized or a mythical film. Irrespective of what the results will be, when you get into something like this and you give it four years of your life, it is so much fun.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is slated to release on 12 July. To know what Farhan Akhtar had to do to get into the skin of the character of the Olympic sprinter, readour earlier story, “Run, Farhan, run".

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