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Revisiting Bhaag Milkha Bhaag - the first Bollywood sports biopic on a "living" legend

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag chronicles the life of Milkha Singh and paces behind him as he raced to glory, barefooted and turbanned, and into our hearts to make a permanent home for himself.

Revisiting Bhaag Milkha Bhaag - the first Bollywood sports biopic on a living legend

Portraying Milkha Singh - still from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (left) and Milkha Singh 


Sohinee Basu

Updated: 19 Jun 2021 1:12 PM GMT

The pressure of being the first can be intense. Yet legendary Indian sprinter Milkha Singh was not unfamiliar to these territories - no, Milkha Singh was the path-maker, the original trendsetter, he was the first one to fly, feet barely touching the ground, soaring into spaces where nobody had before. The country's first and only gold medallist in athletics at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games in the 400 metres race, Milkha Singh is a legend even beyond the tracks.

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's National award winning 2013 film which was spearheaded by Farhan Akhtar - Bhaag Milkha Bhaag chronicles the life of Milkha Singh and paces behind him as he raced to glory and into our hearts to make a permanent home for himself. With roots in Govindpura, Pakistan, Singh's life was fraught with trauma and loss and the Sikh, by taking to the tracks, changed the course of his own life, routing it towards glory and touched the lives of millions by becoming the country's pride.

Investing in pain-staking research, Ompraskash Mehra and screenplay writer and lyricist, Prasoon Joshi took up the daunting task of making a biopic on a living sportsperson - the first of its kind in the history of Bollywood. While the concept of sports films wasn't a niche area - there was Lagaan (2001), there was Chak De! India (2007) and there was obviously Paan Singh Tomar (2010), however nobody had done a biopic on a living legend of sports before the Mehra-Joshi duo turned to Milkha Singh. And who better than the Flying Sikh to be the first subject of such portrayal on the silver screen?

Earning rave critical reviews, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, in its very essence is a deeply inspiring story that runs for a little over three hours. Replete with rousing moments - ones that will see the strings of your sentimental side being tugged at to those when the inner patriot will beam proudly to that where the notes of the sarangi, the voice of Javed Bashir and Shreya Ghoshal or Siddharth Mahadevan will add the necessary magic to the fairytale tale of Milkha Singh.

Shaping the narrative of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

Farhan Akhtar in the movie Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013)

The publication of Milkha Singh's autobiography - The Race of My Life, which was co-authored by his daughter Sonia Sanwalka, hit the stands in 2013. Immediately prompting a reaction, this gripping yet simply penned autobiography fetched the natural attention of Bollywood, constantly on the quest for the next-big-story. Interestingly, Milkha Singh agreed to sell the rights for his biopic for just a Re 1 currency note that traced its way back to 1958 - the year when Singh created history by winning the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and announced his arrival on the international circuit.

However, even with the rights in place, the job of narrating the life of an already living person is hardly easy, the room for errors is ripe and one has to be extra careful. Prasoon Joshi, in many interviews, revealed the sheer hard work that went behind the scripting process. For any biopic to do well and to properly capture the person, the narrative style takes utmost precedence. While Farhan Akhtar underwent rigorous training to simply fit into the larger-than-life shoes of Milkha Singh, Mehra and Joshi began crafting the perfectly Bollywood sports drama with the legend himself guiding them throughout the scripting and filming process with his invaluable inputs.

"It took me nearly three years to write the script. It was about unearthing deeper truths and feelings - ones that were perhaps in Milkha Singh's subconscious but had not been expressed. It was like being a psychoanalyst and writer rolled into one," Prasoon Joshi had mentioned in a Business Standard interview.

Although the definition of an actor is to fit into the skin of another with seamless ease - Farhan Akhtar's transition into assuming the role of the Flying Sikh was a laboured process but thoroughly rewarding in the end. If one is to read Milkha Singh's autobiography after having watched the film - the stirring images from it are most likely to grace the mind, providing a visual enactment of the scenes contained in the book.

"Honesty to the DNA of the person was paramount whilst writing the script as it dives deep into his mind and also explores his character in a multidimensional way, infusing imagination into reality. The challenge was to retain the authenticity of the real character along with the writer's take and create a delicious balance between reality and drama. Dramatisation is important, for that's the need of the medium. But to stay true to the character whilst constructing scenes, his responses and ensuring that there is no false note is what my attempt has been in writing," Prasoon Joshi mentioned in the same interview.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag indulges in its cinematic liberties, adds drama at will to accentuate the greatness of Milkha, punctuates it with soft and tender moments, grips it with tear-jerking and intensely patriotic portions and finally, adds a lot of dollops of inspiration to carve the story of this legend.

Milkha Singh - the epic hero of the soil

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag - film poster

At a time when sports infrastructure in the country was at its shambling best during the initial years of post-Independence, Milkha Singh, bare-footed, turbanned, unsettled the dust and rose from the earthy soil - a very visceral, raw, tainted, all-too-human imperfectly perfect hero. He wasn't a Beowulf or a Siegfried, his epical touch lay enmeshed in his journey, haunted by the horrors of Partition trauma and the 1960 Olympic heartbreak, here was a hero post-Independence India desperately needed.

In Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Farhan Akhtar does an incredible job in capturing the stature of Milkha - a hero of epic proportions by his own right. From the opening scene which shows the 1960 Rome Olympics race where Milkha missed out on a medal by a whisker, coming in fourth on the rankings, to the flashback montages of Partition from where the symbolic title stems - the movie picks the finest, rawest moments from Milkha Singh's career and brings them to the screen.

In being the first movie on a living sports icon, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Prasoon Joshi really triumphed. The turbaned Sikh, played by Akhtar, once again sprinted past the personal horrors of Partition trauma and fled towards the sight of success only to find an eternal place - in the record books, the silver screen and most importantly, in our hearts.

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