Milkha Singh, one of independent India's greatest athletes, died due to COVID-19 related complications on Friday, aged 91. Actor Farhan Akhtar, who played Milkha in the Bollywood biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, says one of the lessons he learned from his interactions with Milkha while preparing for the role was how he overcame the horrific trauma of Partition by believing the best in humanity. Here are excerpts from the interview.
On the news of Milkha Singh's death
It's slowly but surely sinking in. He really was an incredible sporting personality, but his aura transcended sport. He represented something. At a time when India was still finding its feet in various spheres of life, out there on the sporting track we had an Indian achieving things that were unthinkable. So, his legacy lives on. It's not only people from his generation that know his name or the generation directly after. Even kids today, when they train hard, they want to be Milkha Singh. That in itself speaks about this incredible man, and his legacy.
On meeting Milkha
We had never met prior to the film. Of course, like every other Indian who at least has some interest in sport, I had heard his name. I expected to meet someone who was really very disciplined and very stern. I thought he would be a very serious guy, because his misaal (reputation) was such - he would work so hard and he was very serious about everything that he did. So I was very anxious, very nervous as to what kind of person I would meet.
We were training at Priyadarshini Park, in Mumbai, and I was told that he would be visiting that day. There was a huge murmur around the ground, because the other athletes started hearing that 'Milkhaji is coming, Milkhaji is coming'.
He very casually, with just a couple of people, just strolled in in his tracksuit, asked where we were, came up to us. We shook hands, and he said - 'let's not stand here and talk, let's jog' [laughs].
So we started jogging around the track, we did this little 400m jog together where he just basically asked me how I am feeling, if I'm ready to take this challenge on, and I felt really good. I was really touched by how easy he was, how gentle in his demeanour, the way he spoke.
But what really stayed with me was when all these other athletes who were dying to meet him - for me this was my athletic journey kind of beginning, but there were many there who had dedicated their life to it from a really young age. When they came up to him, and touched his feet and were seeking his blessings - and there must have been kids there who were like 15, 17, 20 at the most, who are now in competitive athletics - they all knew him, they were in awe of him. He took time out for each and every child there. He spent a good two to three minutes with everyone. He was in no hurry, he made time, he made you feel special.
That to me was the greatness of the guy, he wore his legend status very, very lightly. He didn't buy into it. He knew, of course, that people respect him and love him, but I don't think he truly understood what he meant, especially to the athletic world.
On Milkha and the biopic
Predominantly, the thing he would keep drilling into my head every time we spoke or met was that 'you have to work harder than anybody else'. He's like 'because that is what everybody says Milkha did, that's what I would like to see on screen. I can't tell you about acting and all this stuff... but what people should feel is that Milkha Singh was a hard worker.' So that stayed with me.
That's what I inculcated from him. I want to work hard, and when he sees it, that is what he should feel.
On Milkha and Pakistan
He did talk about his childhood, what he remembers of it. I think more importantly what was heartening and what was good to see, was that he had made peace with it. It still wasn't something that festered inside of him.
He used to always say - it's also in the film -- log bure nahi hote, haalat bure hote hain (people aren't bad, circumstances are). He used to say that it was just a crazy time, where people were doing things they would not normally do. There was a junoon [obsession] on everybody's head and everybody had lost direction, nobody knew what was in store for them, they were trying their best to grasp whatever it was that they could get.
Of course, his visit to Pakistan played a big role, him winning there, General Ayub Khan giving him the title of Flying Sikh, that country accepting him as one of their own. All of that did help with him finding peace.
We were in London together, after the film had released, and there were many Pakistani people there who came and met him, and he is completely at peace now. The way he speaks to them, the way he asks them about wherever they are from, be it Lahore or Karachi, they invite him and he says 'I hope I can come'. That was good to see. All the anger, the betrayal, even if there was hate for a while, he had put all of that aside and let love be his guiding force.
(As told to Debayan Sen)