Running toward the past: Rakeysh Mehra's 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag' salutes famed Indian athlete


An orphan rises from poverty to become a world-class athlete, battling discrimination along the way. It's a familiar premise for movies, used by Hollywood for years. But for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the true-life story of Sikh runner Milkha Singh, becomes an opportunity to examine a legacy of injustice that extends to this day.

Opening in over 100 theatres in the United States on July 12, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is Mehra's fifth feature. As a child, the director was interested in Singh, who after breaking a world record for the 400-meter run was perhaps the most famous athlete in India. But it wasn't until Mehra read Singh's biography that he pursued a movie.

"Within the first two or three pages, I knew I had to make this," Mehra says, speaking in Manhattan’s Tribeca after a preview screening. Slight and wiry, with unruly salt-and-pepper hair, Mehra is warm and outgoing but almost unnervingly focused.

"I flew to Chandigarh, where Milkha lives, to meet with him," Mehra goes on. "After I spent a couple of hours with him, it became a compulsion for me to tell his story. I spent a good 18 months flying in and out of Chandigarh, speaking with him for hours and hours. It's not easy to share the dark moments in your life, and he was holding back a lot. It took a good deal of time for him to trust us. But once he did, he really opened up."

Singh's story is by any standards remarkable. Born in a village in Lahore, he was 12 at the time of the 1947 partition that separated Pakistan from India. Singh witnessed the murder of his mother, father, three sisters and four brothers, the victims of anti-Sikh discrimination. They were buried in a mass funeral with 2,000 other corpses. He walked a thousand miles to Delhi, where he became one of a million refugees housed in former barracks and other military posts.

As Mehra recalls, "He picked up a knife, joined a gang, did time in jail. But he always wanted to make something out of his life, to earn respect."

Singh joined the Indian Army, where he built bridges, painted buildings and worked as a cook. He entered a six-mile race whose prize was a glass of milk—the start of a racing career that would take him to two Olympics and earn him the nickname "The Flying Sikh."

"He was a kind of lost child," Mehra says. "Almost like the kids in the Holocaust in World War II, or in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The people who suffer the most are the kids. And this man who lost everything, who had nothing, you can find his echo in minority and ethnic communities today. Pacesetters, people striving to get ahead."

Singh approved Mehra's decision to cast Farhan Akhtar as the runner. A director and singer as well as actor, Akhtar joined the project in October 2011. Mehra remembers speaking with him initially for half an hour about Singh's story. Later, Akhtar told him, "If you had stopped ten minutes in, I had already made up my mind to do it."

Akhtar endured months of training for what could be the role of his career. "It's one thing running from point A to point B," Mehra says. "It's quite another to run as if you are a world champion. Farhan had to put the training behind him, have running become second nature to him, before we could plan our shooting time."

Although Bhaag Milkha Bhaag documents a dozen or so races, Mehra insists that he did not set out to make a movie about running. "My cinematographer Binod Pradhan and I decided we would not shoot the races like races," he explains. "We either shoot them as dramatic pieces, as a scene or point to propel the story, or we shoot them like action pieces, as if there were a fight going on."

But when Mehra explains his process, it's evident how much thought and preparation he put into the scenes. He built a scale model of a 400-meter track and started choreographing each race with six stick figures. He divided the races into nine or ten dramatic moments corresponding to camera set-ups.

Before shooting began on a typical day, he would walk Akhtar, the runners and the camera and sound crews through the race three or four times, speeding up the pace each time until everyone had their positions memorized. Mehra cast professional runners from around the world for these scenes. "They were running at 50 percent," he laughs, "while Farhan was running at 150 percent. Even then I had to teach them how to move their hands to give the illusion of speed."

The director knew he needed to shoot the race material quickly, no matter how complicated it was. "It was difficult in terms of writing," he recalls. "We used a lot of storyboards, and Pradhan gave me the equivalent of six months of pre-production work. We shot a lot, but we threw out a lot in the edit, mostly the multi-cam stuff. It's tough for the actors. They're going full out, I can't get Fahran injured, but I also can't say, 'Cut, let's do one more' or they'll start hating you."

Mehra and Pradhan tested several cameras before settled on REDs, mostly because of the system's size and weight advantages. "With running, you have to mount the camera in crazy places," Mehra says. "And with cinder tracks we weren't allowed to use tracking cars. But I kept reminding everyone that we weren't shooting a race, we were creating a dramatic moment. It was not a Nike commercial. I didn't need beautiful shots."

Binod Pradhan was the first person to sign onto Bhaag Milkha Bhaag; this is his third collaboration with Mehra. "I call him 'Bin Gogh' for 'Van Gogh,'" Mehra jokes. "I can't give him enough credit, he's a genius. He gave us four or five looks, different color schemes, to correspond to the time frames in the story."

When it comes to actors, Mehra deflects attention away from himself. "I don't tell actors what to do," he claims. "In fact, I have very little to do with any actor, if you ask me. I tell them when to stop. I used to blow a whistle if they got out of character."

However, the director rehearsed with the cast and crew for two months before shooting started. "The industry doesn't usually rehearse," he admits, "but it paid huge benefits when I made Rang De Basanti [2006], where we got I think 15 days. Here the time brought us together, made us all understand that there was a bigger story, a bigger purpose to the film. As a result, the actors were all there, we were all making the same movie. That's an important point—we were not making different movies in our heads."

Much of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is devoted to the runner's childhood. A month before shooting, the director had still not cast the 12-year-old Milkha. "We screen tested 3,000 kids," Mehra says. "We ran out of kids in India and then went to the U.K. and looked there. Finally we came back to Punjab and started looking through small villages. Then one day the caterer walked in with his son."

Japtej Singh proved perfect for the part, even though Mehra felt uncomfortable with the massacre scenes. "For a kid, you can't act, you have to be," he declares. "It's all real for you, it's not a movie. At times I worried that I was pushing him too much, but I have to hand it to him—he kept reacting to what was around him, and he did it right."

One of the centerpieces of the film takes place in a Delhi refugee camp. Mehra went to archives in London to research how the camps looked. "Give it to the British," he notes ironically, "they're very good at preservation. There were hundreds of photographs and documents of the camps."

Mehra read a statement from a major and doctor who was in charge of the Red Fort camp. "She said when she entered through the gates of this majestic fort," he says, "the first thing that struck her was that there were no leaves on the trees. The people there were eating leaves to survive. That one remark changed everything for me. The photographs, the death, starvation, they're heartrending. The eyes in the photos, they're expressionless, devoid of life. "So how do you find empty eyes for dozens of extras?" he asks.

The director was living in Delhi in 1984. when Sikh bodyguards assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, prompting violent anti-Sikh riots. When it came time to hire extras, he ignored normal industry sources and returned to Silampur, a Sikh neighborhood in Delhi.

"They knew about the riots, they knew about displacement," he says. "So I could tell them, 'Just stare. Don't talk. Don't move. Because you've just come from Pakistan, you've lost everything. There is no joy in life, only emptiness.'"

The twists and turns in Milkha Singh's life lead him back to his village in Lahore to confront his past, an act of courage that defines the athlete for Mehra. "To not run away from your fears but to face them, to run along with them," he muses. "That's what I wanted to put as the final statement as one of Milkha's sayings. But something told me, 'The director's creeping in.' You have Milkha Singh's signature, it has to be something he feels."

The director bumped into Singh at an airport and asked him for a statement, which he recorded on his phone. "Hard work, willpower, dedication," Singh said. "Simple, right?" Mehra laughs. "You know Milkha came to the set one day when we were shooting in a stadium. He saw some of the shots, but he was more interested in talking to the athletes than what was going on with this stupid film unit."