Mehek Raza Rizvi goes to Chandigarh and talks to the real Milkha Singh

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On my recent visit to India, I felt like everyone was talking about the same thing: the sports biopic ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,’ starring Farhan Akhtar. The movie traces the life of former field and track sprinter Milkha Singh, also known as The Flying Sikh – a sobriquet given to him by former President of Pakistan, Ayub Khan. Famous for his vim and pizzazz, Milkha Singh is much talked-about in his small and beautiful hometown, Chandigarh. From incidents at the Chandigarh Golf Club to his fitness, almost everyone I met had something to say about him. Yet hardly anyone knew his real story until filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra decided to make a movie about it. And what a movie it is.

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On my way to watch the movie, my hosts told me I wouldn’t register how quickly time would pass. They were right. The movie explores Singh’s rousing struggle to rebuild his life after his parents and siblings were butchered in front of his eyes in the carnage that preceded Partition. Traumatized and distraught, twelve-year-old Milkha Singh fled from his village, Govindpura (now Muzaffargarh District, Pakistan) and reached Delhi where he united with his sister. From the impoverished refugee camps, which were his home for a long time, Singh learned how to face all odds and take responsibility for his life.  In 1951, at his fourth attempt, he was recruited in the Indian Army at the Electrical Mechanical Engineering Centre. This was where his career as an athlete took off.

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Sonam Kapoor, Milkha Singh & Farhan Akhtar

After making it to the top 10-winners list in a race, he was selected for service commission and eventually sent for the selection of the Olympics team. Amusingly, Milkha’s motivation to win this race were the milk and eggs that were to be given as a reward to the winners.  He went on to break the 400- meter-race world record and represented India in the Summer Olympics in Melbourne (1956), Summer Olympics in Rome (1960), Asian Games in Tokyo and the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.

Singh expressed his deep unhappiness at the fact that ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ was banned in Pakistan

He was also awarded the Padma Shri which is India’s fourth highest civilian order.  Out of the 80 races he has participated in, he has won 77 and owns numerous medals, trophies and awards. However, his ultimate brush with success and global recognition did not come effortlessly. He trained tirelessly to increase his stamina and skill. His coach Havildar Gurdev Singh guided him through a training regime so intense that sometimes the young athlete would vomit blood.  But mentioning his fatigue, bruises and injuries would be like detailing the everyday.

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Milkha Singh standing next to a poster of the film

After the movie ended I knew I had to meet this man in person.

Two days later, I found myself sitting in Milkha Singh’s drawing room for an interview arranged by a dear friend (who happens to be Singh’s neighbor).  Larger than life, gracious and genial, my host greeted me with a huge smile and offered refreshments. Around twelve journalists had just left his house and more kept calling throughout the course of our interview. After exchanging pleasantries I expressed my utter shock at how similar he looked to Farhan Akthar in the movie. “Yes, I get that a lot,” Singh laughed. “One of my daughters met Farhan while the movie was being shot and was just as stunned. Farhan is a wonderful actor and has worked very hard for this movie.

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Milkha Singh & Rajinder Chhibbar

He’s done a great job.” I couldn’t agree more.  Farhan Akhtar outdid himself. His performance was convincing and impassioned. I asked him how much of the movie is actually true and he told me it was complete truth. One of the most endearing parts of the movie was Milkha’s love affair with Biro, played by Sonam Kapoor. When asked about Biro, he smiled. “When you’re that young love is a very fascinating thing. She used to come to a tube well nearby to fetch water and I would follow her.” This romance however did not last as Biro got married to someone else and Singh got busy with his newfound love for running.

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Milkha Singh with family

Milkha Singh got married to Nirmal Kaur, former captain of the Indian Women’s Volleyball team in 1962. The couple first met in Ceylon in 1955. Together they have three daughters and a son, Jheev Milkha Singh. Jheev is a renowned professional golfer and the first Indian golfer to make it to the European Tour.  Clearly these athletes form a family of high achievers.

After exchanging pleasantries I expressed my utter shock at how similar he looked to Farhan Akthar

Singh expressed his deep unhappiness at the fact that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was banned in Pakistan. “If you watch the movie rationally you will realize that in no way does it put Pakistan down. I was left scarred after my family was butchered right in front of my eyes, isn’t that natural? The movie depicts my sentiments at that time truthfully. This doesn’t mean I think of Pakistan as an enemy. I’m sure a lot Pakistanis my age went through the same trauma during partition, so they would understand this best.  That was just not a good time.”

A young Milkha Singh
A young Milkha Singh
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Farhan Akhtar as Milkha Singh

Talking about Abdul Khaliq, the Pakistani sprinter he beat in 1960, Singh shared that during the 1971 war when Khaliq was imprisoned, he went to meet him and made sure he was treated well.

 “When you return to Pakistan please give my message to everyone back home. I am very fond of Pakistan,” he said. “I was born in Pakistan and it is where I got the title ‘the Flying Sikh.’ After my race in Pakistan against Abdul Khaliq, President Ayub Khan told me that I did not run, I flew, and gave me this appellation.”

Milkha Singh has lived an inspirational life from which both Indians and Pakistanis can learn a thing or two. His discipline and passion are admirable and perhaps the key to his success and youthfulness. But most importantly, his story testifies to the fact that hard work and dedication go a long way.

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Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Milkha Singh, Prasoon Joshi, Sonam Kapoor & Farhan Akhtar at the screening of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in London

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