What was the trigger for the story on Milkha Singh? Why did you pick him, considering his life is already well-documented?
The project was suggested to Rakeysh, and he asked me if I’d like to explore it for a script. I decided then to meet Milkhaji once and take a call. The first time I met him, I knew there was something for me there, that I had my script. I wanted to explore the psychology behind the sportsman we know. We’ve given it an emotional core.
Can you elaborate on that?
The focal point of the story is the impact of Partition on the mind of an impressionable child. Milkhaji was just a child when he witnessed the massacre of half his family. That manifested itself in the choices he made later in his life. The seeds of running are to be found in his childhood, his attitude of giving everything to the race lies somewhere in those early years. There was a madness to his running. He told me once that he often used to faint after his races. When I asked him why, he said that he didn’t care even if he died while running. It was all he had and he gave it his all. He ran like he had nothing to lose. I’ve tried to bring out this spirit in the lyrics of the song Zinda, “Hichkiyon mein kya hai marna! Poora mar le…”
A biopic can be tricky and binding at the same time. Were you allowed to take creative liberties with the story?
The writer’s way of approaching true life is to delve into the mind of the person. Somebody’s life is a vast canvas, and we have not made a chronicle or a documentary; we had to pick out things that we felt were important in shaping him and the story peaks at a point in his youth. His life had many people in it and that became one of the challenges, which characters to leave out and which to keep. I believe that nobody is individual in this world, we are all the sum total of the people in our lives. We are influenced by those people, and those influences were very important for me when I was exploring Milkha. For instance, he had two sisters and a brother. I have developed and fleshed out the character of one of his sisters. His other siblings are not mentioned, there was no way of including them in our story. I could not include his wife in my script even though she is so important to his life, but she came right at the end of the time period we were looking at; there would have been no closure to her story had we included her.
This is the first script you have written. What was the most challenging part?
A lot of work went into reading. I read stories on Partition by Saadat Hasan Manto and Bhisham Sahni, sensitising myself to the events of that time, and trying to understand the impact of it on a young mind. Once the story was clear, the challenge was the screenplay. There are two flashbacks, it’s not a linear narrative at all. It starts in the middle and sometimes it moves left and sometimes right. There’s constant back and forth. I feel I’ve respected my audience in doing that, expecting them to keep up.
What is the one quality that Milkha Singh epitomises?
He wants to be a winner. He might’ve lost the last race of his life, but he does not consider himself a loser. Where did you reach in life from where you started, did you manage to fight life, fight your demons, your destiny? He did all of that with great spirit.
How much did he open up to you? Is it more difficult to make a biopic of a living person?
In the beginning, he’d only talk about his sporting achievements, his records, but I would keep probing him about his personal life, and then he started opening up. I met him over a period of six months. Once my absorption of him was over, I did not go back and forth to consult with him, as that would interfere with my writing. I had to do that to be able to follow my own thought process.