Apart from the physical preparation that went into the role, how did you set about internalising the character of Milkha Singh?
It is very important to internalise the character, but it is difficult to put the process into words. There is no rule by which you can tell at what point you have reached the transformation. The important part is to realise that there is only so much you can do to look like someone. After that, it is crucial to capture the essence of the person, his emotional core.
What was that essence that you tried to distil in your performance?
It was his never-say-die attitude. He is extremely honest to himself and those around him. He is also someone who has the ability to forgive and move on, to free himself of the past. You can either let such events crush you or find the courage to liberate yourself.
In the past, you have played urban characters close to your comfort zone. This is the first time that you have stepped out of it completely.
By the time we began shooting, we had gone through seven months of preparation. I worked closely with a dialogue supervisor. I had to train myself consciously to have conversations in Hindi, to not let English be my reactive language. It was both challenging and satisfying.
The role was demanding in more ways than one. Can you describe the physical transformation you had to undergo?
There were two or three aspects to the physical part of the role. I had to try and match his running style; he has a very individual style of running that evolved over a period of a few years as he got better coaching. The second part was to work on a lean body type. The character goes through two or three body types. We did a lot of high-altitude training, boosting of stamina, strength-building and endurance training. I had to make sure I was up for it and not get injured as we could not afford to stall the shoot. All aspects of this role were equally demanding. It kept me on my toes and I was driven by a sense of responsibility towards both Rakeysh and Milkhaji.
What would you say is the most satisfying part of this film?
Rakeysh has made the film exactly as he wanted to and that for me is satisfying. When I heard the script in 2011, I reacted emotionally to it. Now after going through the entire process of making it, the rigmarole, I still react in the same way, and that says a lot. It means that he did not lose sight of the finishing line.
A biopic is a challenging genre. As an actor and a filmmaker yourself, how would you describe the challenge?
In a film, you’re responsible to the character you play and as a director, you are also responsible to the subject and his family. You want them to feel like they have done the right thing by trusting you to make it. You want them to feel happy with their choice, as if some justice has been done to that person’s life. It doesn’t matter whether the film works or not, what matters is that Milkhaji and his family are happy with what we’ve done.