A boy too young to comprehend the machinations of religious hatred flees his village, turning around just once to see his father being beheaded. He returns after the carnage, traumatised, looking for his mother, slips in a pool of blood and slides into a mass grave piled with the bodies of his relatives and neighbours.
This is the brief 12-year-old Japtej Singh received for his pivotal scene in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, in which young Milkha’s raw grief sets the foundation for his life — a flirtation with crime, and later, an unquenchable thirst for victory. The film’s director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra believes Japtej strengthened his central conviction while making the film — namely, that there is a Milkha in all of us. “It was during the shooting of that scene that I realised Japtej is special. Children do not know how to act, they only know how to feel and emote. That day, I told him to imagine all these horrific things happening to his own family. I hated myself for it, but Japtej did it — he is not performing the role of Milkha, he is living it.” As this story goes to press, the film is in its second week in theatres, has raked in Rs 74.4 crore at the box office. Yet, not much seems to have changed in its youngest protagonist’s life. After a whirlwind visit to Mumbai, a press conference in his hometown of Chandigarh, Japtej is home, focussing on school, faintly aglow from his time spent on set.
“It wasn’t too difficult shooting that scene,” he shrugs, freshly muddied from playing cricket. “I was asked to act as natural as possible.” Ask him how he interpreted that word “natural”, when applied to this most unimaginable situation, and you have evidence of how the film does more than merely pay homage to the legend of Milkha Singh. “I had heard of Milkha Singh but I did not know much about him. Just like I knew about the Partition but not the violence involved,” he says in perfect Punjabi.
Lithe, dusky, with a loping grace, Japtej fits into the image of a young Milkha effortlessly, at moments even more so than the ripped Farhan Akhtar. Mehra says finding Japtej was a “happy coincidence” after auditioning 3,228 children across the world. His father Swarnjeet Singh runs a catering and transport production firm for the Punjabi film industry. One evening, a friend called to tell him about the audition and he decided to enter Japtej, whose acting credits included a fleeting cameo in a small Punjabi film and a role in a school adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“At first, we didn’t realise the magnitude of the production,” exclaims Swarnjeet. “When we saw the thoroughness with which he was trained, its scale dawned on us.” Overwhelmed by finding his son in the midst of the world he had, thus far, only lived on the fringes of, the ecstatic father proudly recounts calls from “Punjabi film stars I’ve gotten to know over the years, as they realised that this young protagonist is my son”.
Japtej trained after school every day to develop stamina. Even after 40 days of full day shoots, his spirit hasn’t dampened. “I’m going to be an actor when I’m older,” he declares. He is hazy on what that takes, though. “I don’t know whether I’ll study acting or not but it is going to be my career.” For now, his biggest worry is getting through school. Other offers are pouring in but the family does not want Japtej to settle for less after this first meaty role. “We would rather he focus on finishing his studies. There will be enough time for film roles,” says his mother.
Rattling off that number — 3,228 — is when Japtej appears to visibly feel ‘special’. “People often recognise me on the streets, say kind things about my performance and sometimes call me Milkha,” he smiles. It’s a disarming smile, untouched by the cynical self-awareness of celebrity-hood. It strikes you most memorably in the film when the victorious adult Singh races across the finish line and sees his younger self running alongside. Farhan Akhtar tries hard to mirror the look on Japtej’s face, but it is hard even for the seasoned actor to get it right. Milkha Singh, however, recognised it when he got up after a private screening in Chandigarh, and embraced Japtej — it is the look of pure, unadulterated joy of a young boy running into the arms of his future.