Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra knew he wanted to make a biographical film based on the life of Indian sprinter Milkha Singh when he stumbled onto a copy of Singh’s autobiography.
“It was a photocopy, not even a bound one,” Mehra told reporters in New York this week while promoting his new movie Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. “It’s just – you buy into a story and you get obessed with it and you want to share it.”
After Mehra met with Singh to discuss his vision for the film, the retired athlete decided to sell the rights to his story for just one rupee.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag begins at the 1960 Rome Olympics as we see Singh just before he runs the 400m. Largely due to a tactical error on his part, Singh finished fourth in that race, which was India’s best chance of getting a medal. Dejected after the loss, Milkha Singh withdraws in his home. The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks, as Singh’s personal running coach explains to an Indian government official why the champion runner refuses to go to Pakistan to compete in a goodwill race.
We learn that the reason Singh is so reluctant to cross the border is because nearly his entire family was killed during Partition. The film traces the life of a 13-year-old Singh as he escapes his village and ends up in a refugee camp before joining the Indian Army as a young man. “So what does it take for a boy, who has no parents, no roof over his head, what does it take to make a world champion?” asked Mehra.
Mehra said he was deeply moved during his conversations with Singh while doing research for the film. “When I would speak to him, his eyes would fill up with tears when he talked about two things, the massacre of his parents and the dropping of the gold medal in Rome,” said Mehra.
Milkha Singh saw the completed film three weeks ago. “We sat together and a couple of times he reached out and held my hand,” he said. “Even his daughters and wife cannot describe it.”
The breakout star of the film is Farhan Akhtar, who plays the adult Singh. Best known for his work behind the camera (he directed Don and Don 2 and produced Fukrey and Rock On! among other films), Akhtar transforms himself in the film, having undergone extensive training to transform his body and running style to convincingly perform like an award winning athlete.
While Akhtar has acted in films before, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag marks the first time he has played such an intense, multi-faceted role. “I always felt like there was a huge potential within him, just trying to burst out,” Mehra said. “His eyes have always captivated me. I think that they are very sincere.”
In the end, Mehra says that he hopes that audiences are moved by Singh’s unique story. “The idea of Milkha Singh is it in all of us,” said Mehra. “It’s just that spirit, that philosophy of that person. With everything given to us there are no excuses.”
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag opened today in select theaters in the United States and Canada. Check here to find a theater near you.