What compelled you to make a biopic when it is a relatively unexplored genre in the Indian film industry?
I’ve always tried to tell stories that moved me. As an ex-athlete, I grew up with the folklore of Milkha Singh. At the National Stadium in Delhi, where I used to train, all the coaches across the board would tell us how Milkha would practise until his feet bled, until he literally filled buckets with his sweat. He was the stuff of legend for us, so naturally he occupied a significant part of my subconscious. That being said, I wouldn’t call Bhaag Milkha Bhaag a biopic, it has no details about where he was born, where he grew up and went to school. But it is a story inspired by the legend of Milkha Singh, especially the period between 1945-1960.
Did you choose to make a film ‘inspired by’ Milkha Singh instead of a biopic because of the creative licence that it would allow you?
About four-and-a-half years ago, I came across a book in Gurmukhi written by Singh about his life. A friend’s father read it and spoke to me about it. I was intrigued and decided to meet my childhood hero in Chandigarh. We started talking, about his childhood, the violence he had seen, the arc of his life. I was quite convinced that this was a story I had to tell. You always choose the moments most easily translatable into a visual narrative. It took nearly 18 months of Prasoon (Joshi) and I speaking to Milkha for literally hours every day just to make him feel comfortable around us. He eventually began to let us reach the darkest corners of his soul.
Once that process of unravelling begins, are you tempted to cram all those undiscovered parts of Milkha into your story?
The difference between the Milkha I met and the Milkha I had heard of was this: the man in front of me happened to be an athlete. What made his story so compelling was his personality. Of course, we knew that he had suffered terribly during the Partition, that he had begged, borrowed, stolen to survive, but now we were hearing him speak of that hunger, of those terrible nights. It is not usual to see an 80-year-old hearty sardar’s eyes cloud with tears; we saw that. This is a story about how India’s independence was also a dark moment. About the lost childhood of Milkha. About growing up to become a forgotten hero.
So what devices did you employ to enter this part of Singh’s psyche, one that he did not consciously want to revisit?
My research was extensive. I read up on survivors of the World Wars, on the Rwandan genocide, on the repression of minorities. I spent months in London poring over records of the British occupation of India. One of the accounts by an ex-Army doctor spoke of her visit to the refugee camp at Purana Qila. “When I entered the gates there were no leaves on the trees because the refugees had eaten every last one,” it read. I wanted my film to depict that sense of being damned, almost like the Holocaust.
I realised that there are likenesses of Milkha in the histories of oppressed everywhere: people who have felt the fire to prove themselves because of their terrible circumstances, people who set the pace for generations to follow.
At what point during this journey into Milkha’s past did you decide Farhan would be your protagonist?
Maybe two years ago I would have told you that it was instinct. Now I cannot even for a second imagine anyone who would have brought so much into this character. I began working on this story with an open mind. I auditioned young men in the UK, Canada and here, but there was always something missing. I think now that what I wanted was an innocence. There are moments in the film, like the first time Milkha takes a flight to go somewhere for a race. He sees smoke coming out of the propeller and starts screaming, thinking that the plane is on fire. The pilot comes to reassure him, and he is even more aghast that the plane is flying without a pilot. I didn’t want a moment like this to look slapstick because it isn’t, it’s his innocence. For the entire duration of shooting this film, I forgot who Farhan Akhtar was. I only spoke to him as Milkha, he only responded as Milkha. I wouldn’t be surprised if Farhan only dreamt of gold medals.
Looking back, what do you think were your biggest challenges?
I don’t think the biopic as a genre has received its due in India. So when I decided to make this film, there were no takers for it. For a long time, I thought about making it on a small scale, but that would have been an injustice to every athlete who’s ever grown up imagining the Olympics, including me. The scale of his life demanded a canvas large enough to tell the story. Another challenge was converting Prasoon’s incredible writing into visual moments; my cinematographer Binod Pradhan entered the scene early on. To me, a good film is one you can watch and feel even without the volume. So our film has 10-15 minutes every now and then when everything is conveyed through gestures, through music, through the lens. The screenplay had to be kept fluid at all times, so that everyone could bring in their own interpretation.