I finally saw Milkha Singh run and truth to tell, could barely stop the tears. I only had a fleeting glimpse of the quarter-miler many years ago and admired the sprightly stature and erect bearing of a man who wears his age with grace. And thanks to Farhan Akhtar and Rakeysh Mehra, I relived the history that I had studied in school.
The movie Bhaag Milkha Bhaag evoked nostalgia of my days as a cub reporter growing up in the era of Prakash Padukone, PT Usha, Ashwini Nachappa and of course a host of hockey players, notably Mir Ranjan Negi. I found the movie gripping from start to finish with the songs stirring up emotions that could be barely contained.
I am not sure though whether Milkha boasted of the six-pack and muscled shoulders that Farhan displayed in the movie, but loved the innocence of the period when Indian sportspersons and coaches were hardly exposed to modern training methods and equipment.
The coaching scenes, for instance, were quite realistic and something I have witnessed at some of the national camps I had attended as a journalist. These days though, you rarely see such commitment on part of the Indian coaches or for that matter sportspersons, with a few exceptions no doubt.
Belonging to the post-Partition generation, it is difficult to relate to the horror stories of indiscriminate killing and bloodshed that marked the division of a country along religious lines. The Milkha movie provided a peek into those troubled times and I recalled the stories I have heard from people who opted to relocate to India, leaving behind only the roots that still tug at their hearts.
I only wish that the movie had dwelt a little more on the heart-break of the 1960 Rome Olympics when Milkha missed out on a medal in the 400 metres by finishing fourth. It was a race that experts believed Milkha could have won given the form he was in going into the Games. Till date, the great man regrets he could not win a medal that was his for the asking.
Whatever, it is to be hoped that Bollywood takes up more such projects. If Chak de India shed light on the travails of a man (Negi) vilified and castigated without reason in the aftermath of the heavy defeat to Pakistan in the 1982 Asian Games final, the Milkha movie did its bit to highlight the life of an athlete who rose from penury to iconic status.
In fact, Indian sport is dotted with such rags-to-riches stories. Prakash and Usha, for instance, rose from humble backgrounds to excel and inspired a generation while changing the face of badminton and athletics. Indian hockey too is a treasure trove of men and women who overcame odds, chased a dream and went on to live it.
So much so that for a country with no sporting culture and an obsession with just one sport, cricket, India has produced world class sportspersons which in itself is a great story. The likes of Milkha, Usha, Prakash and even Vishy Anand rose to the top not because of the system, but in spite of it. Their greatness lies in their daring, courage and immense will power to succeed.
While watching the Milkha movie, my thoughts raced back into time to the days when sportspersons were essentially second-class citizens, unsung and uncared for until they literally hit the headlines. Even now, few Indian sportspersons have access to or are even aware of modern training methods and equipment. Yet, some do manage to perform, but eventually fade out without fulfilling their potential and doing no justice to their talent.
Farhan and director Mehra have done a remarkable job. I read an interview of Milkha where he salutes both for depicting him accurately. The word is that even the legendary Carl Lewis was moved after seeing the film with a friend who translated into English and according to Milkha, wants to send a gift.
Milkha represents a generation of athletes who followed its heart rather than head, and the movie reflected it quite splendidly. I am not an expert in film-making to predict whether the Milkha movie is good enough for an Oscar nomination, but in my book, it is the best I have ever seen in a long, long time. Chak de, Milkha!