Having now personally seen the film, I will testify to watching an excellent film – a story beautifully told, brilliantly acted, emotionally satisfying, memorable. Reviewers have waxed eloquent about the merits of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and more so I won’t; suffice it to say that I love a film that makes be smile, laugh, cry and feel, the way that this one did. I am also glad I watched the film in Chandigarh, Milkha Sing’s hometown – with a large scattering of Sikh pugrees in the audience – the claps, hoots, whistles and the atmosphere added to the cinematic experience.
As I watched the film progress – the story of a difficult, eventful live with wonderful highs and tragic lows, resplendent with tender moments and heart wrenching ones, I kept wondering how much of the film is based on fact and how much is artistic embellishment and cinematic licence.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag tells Milkha Singh’s Story
In a TV interview, Milkha Singh spoke of having told his story to make the film: he said that 90% of the film is based on fact, on his own life. It is true he was born in Gobindpura in undivided India and had some traumatic experiences during the time when he escaped the gruesome killings that accompanied partition. His parents and 8 of his brothers and sisters died during the partition riots and Milkha Singh actually witnessed these.
It is also true that he stayed with his married sister in Delhi after partition. As a penniless refugee from the Pakistan side of Punjab he first spent time at a camp in Purana Qila as portrayed in the film and then later lived in a colony in Shahadara. The episode about him traveling on a train without ticket, his brief stint in jail and the subsequent pawning of her jewelry by his sister to get him released from prison, are also based on fact.
Milkha Singh did in fact enroll in the Indian Army and was stationed at EME, Secunderabad where his athletic talent first came to light. In a funny scene in the movie, Jawan Milkha’s drill sergeant addresses his troops to ask if any of them have run before – only two men (not including Milkha singh)said they had and that was running away to escape a dog bite or similar!
It is true that Milkha Singh broke a world record for the 400 meters race, that he won the gold at the 1958 Commonwealth Games and that he missed an Olympic medal in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. What is also true is that Singh’s traumatic memories of partition meant that he did not want to go to Pakistan for the Athletics Meet and that he had to be persuaded to do so by then PM Pt Jawaharlal Nehru. His defeating his arch rival Abdul Khaliq in Pakistan and the bestowing of the title The Flying Sikh by General Ayub Khan upon him are also historically accurate.
How much of the Portrayal of Milkha Singh’s personal life is accurate?
In the film, Farhan Akhtar’s character is shown to have fallen for a girl called Biro in his neighbourhood – he goes away to make something of himself and when he returns she is already married; he is heartbroken. He then supposedly had an affair with Stella, the granddaughter of the guide of the Indian Athletic contingent in Melbourne during his visit there for the Olympics. It’s not clear whether any of these episodes occurred in real life. Evidently this is what he meant, when writer Prosoon Joshi said “this film is not a mirror of Milkha Singh’s life. It is an interpretation of his life.”
In real life Singh met his wife Nirmal Kaur in 1955 – she was then captain of the women’s volley ball team. They married in 1962 and now live in Chandigarh, but this film makes no mention of her. So the personal parts of the story have perhaps more to do with the Joshi’s flair for the dramatic than historical fact it would seem.
Farhan Akhtar’s brilliant portrayal of the Flying Sikh
In his interview Milkha Singh said that his son Jeev Milkha Singh has great admiration for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra; particularly his iconic Rang De Basanti and it was this that prompted the family to give the story to this particular director to make a film on – turned out to be a very sound decision indeed. As for casting Farhan Akhtar in the title role; well that was a masterstroke.
Not only did the actor train long and hard (after subsisting on a high protein diet to build up those muscles, he apparently longed for rotis), sometimes in difficult terrain, he learned how to run from Milkha Singh himself. The hair, the beard, the athletic stance, even the teeth are very accurately portrayed. I cannot think of anyone currently in Bollywood other than Farhan Akhtar who could have pulled it off – his talent, his ability to take on a persona, his utter commitment shine through in the film.
Akhtar has done a brilliant job with a role that will inevitably lead to comparisons – any biopic is difficult for this reason. The film evidently allows itself significant dramatic leeway, but the end result is a terrific film – if you haven’t watched it do so now. I plan to watch it again.
By Reena Daruwala