‘Run, Milkha, run!’ were the last words 12-year-old Milkha Singh heard his father scream before his parents were butchered in the bloodbath of Partition, which cleaved Pakistan from India in August 1947.
Eleven years later, Singh won gold in the 400m at 1958’s Commonwealth Games in Cardiff – and became an Indian national hero.
Now Singh’s remarkable story has been adapted for the big screen – Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Run, Milkha, Run) has Bollywood superstar Farhan Akhtar playing India’s greatest ever track and field athlete, and it’s not a role he has taken lightly.
‘Milkha’s an awe-inspiring person who all Indians know, respect and admire,’ explains the boyishly good-looking 39-year-old. ‘Over time, fewer people know about what went into making the man, so this film is about the rediscovery of an icon – it’s a story that needs to be told and shared.’
Does Singh’s journey of a young man coming from turmoil to make his mark on the world stage feed into the zeitgeist of India as an emerging superpower? ‘Absolutely, it’s an inspirational story and it is patriotic too,’ explains Akhtar. ‘He is an Indian sportsman travelling the world winning races and establishing his identity and also that of his country, which was born around the same time.
‘However, it’s not jingoistic – that’s something the director and myself are allergic to. It’s a feelgood film but at the heart of it is the strength of human character and the need for us to be accepted and respected in our way – that’s something everyone relates to.’
It’s refreshing to find that despite working in an image-obsessed industry, Akhtar is far from immaculately turned out: he’s casually dressed in light-brown cords, a loose navy T-shirt, Reebok trainers and a black jacket (on one of the hottest days of the year).
However, image was all-important when it came to portraying Singh on screen, with Akhtar developing a ripped physique that’s sure to swell his 2million Twitter followers (@FarOutAkhtar in case you were curious). How hard was the training?
‘Milkha Singh stands for strength and determination, so it was important for me to translate that physically – to create a colossus,’ he says, grimacing. ‘It was a long process involving trainers, physios and nutritionists – there was seven months of training before the shoot and we were in production for ten months, so it was very tough.’
Akhtar is among a younger generation of film-makers exploding the stereotype of Bollywood movies as all-singing, all-dancing, family-friendly melodramas. Last year’s successes included Barfi, a romcom centred on a mute and deaf man and an autistic woman, English Vinglish, a Shirley Valentine-style story of a housewife rediscovering herself, and Vicky Donor, a slapstick comedy revolving around sperm donation.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is another example of new-school Bollywood – fresh and slick yet aiming squarely for the mainstream. ‘There’s been an evolution in storytelling and film-makers are thinking differently, which means a modern film like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag can co-exist alongside song and dance films,’ explains Akhtar. ‘It’s a sign of a healthy industry.
‘Twenty or 30 years ago Indians’ exposure to cinema from around the world was very limited. Now the world is a global village and audio-visual material is easily accessible, which means sensibilities are no longer only rooted in melodramatic Indian films. Film-makers are making films for Indian audiences but reaching out to people whose films they’re watching too.’
Akhtar seems an everyday, normal guy – he has none of the preening superstar swagger – and comes across as humble, polite and thoughtful, regularly pausing to search for just the right word. His care for language is no great surprise considering his father and grandfather are celebrated poets.
His father, Javed Akhtar, is also a songwriter and, as one half of the Salim-Javed partnership, wrote many of Indian cinema’s biggest films of the 1970s and 1980s, including all-time classic Sholay.
So it seems Farhan, who at 27 wrote and directed coming-of-age smash hit Dil Chahta Hai, is following in his father’s footsteps. Initially, however, he resisted joining the family trade.
‘When I was young I was drawn to the magic of films but I was shy about it as my parents were from film and it seemed like the natural order of things for me to work in film,’ he says. ‘I was embarrassed by that and rebelled against it but then it gripped me.’
He doesn’t ever envisage focusing on just one thing. ‘Why limit yourself?’ he asks. ‘As long as I feel the need to direct, write or act, I’ll do it. If I’m not excited or fired up by something, it won’t become my job.’
Earlier this year, Akhtar set up Men Against Rape and Discrimination (MARD, which translates as ‘man’ in Hindi). ‘The horrific incident in Delhi in December, where a young woman was raped on a bus and died, was the final straw,’ he says. ‘There were similar cases before that and when I read about them, I would have a strong emotional reaction and discuss it with people close to me and say, “we must do something” but it wouldn’t translate into action.
‘It came to a point where I felt if I don’t get involved it wouldn’t be right. The work we do with film where people support you, love your work and admire what you do – that gives you a voice and people listen to you. If we can use that do something productive beyond entertaining people, it’s our responsibility.