His fourth-place finish in the 400m broke the national record and made him one of Indian sport’s early heroes.
However, not many knew much about him beyond that race. It’s why the story of Milkha Singh’s life was brought forth in the 2013 Bollywood biopic, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.
Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and starring Farhan Akhtar in the lead role, the Milkha Singh movie traced the journey of the champion runner; from a 12-year-old escaping the horrors of partition to the star athlete he eventually became.
The Bollywood biopic, one of the highest-grossing films at the box office that year, also starred Sonam Kapoor, Divya Dutta and Pavan Malhotra as some of the integral characters in the life of the Indian athlete.
The Bhaag Milkha Bhaag cast also includes Yograj Singh, father of former Indian cricketer Yuvraj Singh.
The movie is based on Milkha Singh’s autobiography, ‘The Race of my Life’.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag movie: A gripping human story
Biopics may be the rage in Bollywood now, with several stars like London 2012 bronze-medallist MC Mary Kom, and former Indian cricket team captains Mohammad Azharuddin and MS Dhoni having had movies based on their lives.
However, in 2013, it was a fairly novel concept and the success of ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ set the tone for biopics.
The fascinating story was one of the primary reasons for it.
“The story itself was an incredible journey. I was moved by it and also inspired at the same time and I felt it was a story that needed to be told,” Farhan Akhtar, who plays Milkha Singh in the film, told Olympics.com.
“I could also sense Rakeysh’s palpable excitement for the film and knew that he would be passionately involved in the project,” said Akhtar.
Farhan Akhtar, who won best actor for the movie, was also a natural fit to play the role, having been a runner at school himself.
The director, for his part, believed what made the film tick was the fact it was approached as more than just a sports drama.
“His life as an athlete gave me a lot of impetus, cinematic value and energy, which I could not have got from any other story,” Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra had told Livemint in an interview. “This is not just a sports film, it is a human story. Sport is incidental to that human.”
And the most essential thing that worked for the endearing vibe of the film was the warm nature of the protagonist himself.
“He is a very down-to-earth, hospitable, and loving person,” Farhan Akhtar said about the ‘Flying Sikh’.
“I remember an incident when he had flown down to Mumbai to watch me train. There were a few other athletes training at the grounds and they walked up to him to seek his blessings.
“And Milkha ji took his time to speak to them, ask about their disciplines, motivate them and answer their questions. He was in no hurry to get on with work and you learn a lot from that,” he said.
“I was also lucky to meet his family, who are very humble too.”
'Hard work pays' - A true story
The movie sourced its material from Milkha Singh’s autobiography, which he co-wrote with his daughter.
His son, the Indian golfer Jeev Milkha Singh was involved in the developmental stages.
“I was involved in the process like choosing the director and making sure what kind of message needs to be conveyed to the youth and the elderly,” Jeev Milkha Singh, a movie buff himself, had told Olympics.com.
The golfer is a big fan of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and when the latter approached the family with his idea, they were overwhelmed. So much so that they signed away the rights to the film for a single rupee and asked the makers to donate some of the proceeds to the ‘Milkha Singh Charitable Trust’.
And they were satisfied with the output as well, as the movie brought out Milkha Singh’s mantra of hard work.
“The foremost message to the youth was that hard work pays and you have to have that belief system in place," Jeev Milkha Singh said. "You have to be determined and if you want to do something, you have to work hard for it.”
It also portrayed the early part of Milkha Singh’s life in a realistic lens.
“The partition part was also very good. I think my father and others of his generation relived what they went through at the time. All his friends claimed that it was exactly what had happened during partition,” the Indian golfer added.
“I think the whole team, Rakeysh, Farhan, and (writer) Prasoon Joshi did a fantastic job in making it a very motivational movie.”
As is the case with any adaptation to the silver screen, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ also took some cinematic liberty while dealing with certain facets.
The soundtrack, composed by famed music trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, narrates Milkha Singh’s story at various points in a dramatic manner – his romantic tryst at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and his subsequent steely determination to succeed– for example.
During the latter sequence, the movie shows Milkha walking up to his coach, played by former cricketer Yograj Singh, demanding to know what the 400m world record was.
The coach writes ‘45.9 seconds’ on a piece of paper, which becomes the legend’s sole target for the following year, and he eventually ends up running 45.73 seconds.
However, in reality, the world record at that point was 45.2 seconds, set by Lou Jones of the United States of America, but the dramatization was necessitated by the need to give the film a narrative flow.
The aspect of love was something that Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra believes was important to bring out the story in its true form.
“We capture his brush with romance - it is pivotal to what Milkha Singh told us about how he wanted to establish himself as a man of integrity so that he could deserve love,” the director said.
The cinematic liberties aside, the only verdict that mattered was of the legend himself, and Milkha Singh, who initially wanted Akshay Kumar to play him, was rendered emotional when he saw the movie.
“The direction and dialogues made me cry,” Milkha Singh had admitted to The Indian Express.
“I congratulated Farhan Akhtar, who was sitting next to me, and told him, ‘Son, you are a duplicate copy of Milkha Singh.”