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Geetika Pathania Jain: Really delighted that you could make yourself available to India Currents readers for an exclusive interview. We are really excited about your upcoming film and your role in the film as Milkha Singh. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how you prepared for the role?

Farhan Akhtar: It was pretty intense as far as any prep for me personally goes. He (Milkha Singh) is someone whose name is used as an example of an athlete who trained harder than anyone else and was extremely dedicated to what he did. Someone who sacrificed a lot, and so everyone looked up to him with a great degree of admiration for what he stood for. So it was important to follow that same philosophy vis-a-vis his approach to his sport. To just try and give everything that I possibly could. That automatically created the spirit of that character within me. Then there was the physical training because I was portraying an athlete.  And there was language training, because I was playing somebody who has a Punjabi flavor in the way he speaks. There were many things that went into it, but the important thing was trying to understand the spirit of the man, and to recreate that.

How did you first hear about the role? Could you tell us how you were chosen to portray this very charsmatic and iconic figure?

Farhan Akhtar: Well, probably in what I consider in retrospect as one of the happier days of my life, Rakeysh (director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra) called me and said there was a story he wanted to discuss and could we meet, and I said, of course, let’s do that, and we had a very quick meeting, where he, within 20 or 25 minutes, told me the story as he saw it. It wasn’t too much in detail, merely the story of the man.

Rakeysh was a national level athlete in his earlier years, and he is someone who was constantly motivated by his coaches and his trainers with Milkha Singh’s name. “You should train like him, and you should see what he’s achieved.”

So for him (Mehra), he (Singh) was a very enigmatic and a very important figure in his life.

And when he was making this film, it was more than a film for him. I think he had connected with it on a much deeper level. And you could sense that in the way he spoke about Milkha Singh. And you could sense that emotional connect when he spoke to me about Milkha Singh’s life. And somewhere, it just felt like a very dear project to him. Of course, it was an incredible human story of someone who rose up out of the rubbles of his life, and achieved this amazing success in something that he had dedicated his life to. So, all these things, they really made me feel that this project was special, and it would be something of a learning for me. And that it would be a memorable life experience.

And was that the case?

Farhan Akhtar: I think so. It has definitely been a tremendous year and a half for me personally, being, living this character. Of course, you get to learn about the possibilities of film-making, and the possibilities of character-creation and all that. But, I think beyond that, I was impressed with his spirit, of someone who really approached his dream very no-holds barred, with no safety net so to speak. That really resonated with me. I feel that if you want to try and do things that seem beyond you, but if you still dream that it’s possible for you to do it, then that’s the only way. You take both your feet off the ground. You don’t keep one hanging somewhere for a bit of safety in case you need to come back.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Partition. Is that a big part of the film?

Farhan Akhtar: It’s part of his history. He lived in a village called Govindpura, which was in Multan, which is now Pakistan. And he and his family were victims of the Partition. And he moved from there to what is India. And he lost his family, he lost his siblings, with the exception, I think, of one sister. And so it was an extremely traumatic childhood. He was eleven years old when he saw his family being killed. Still, for someone to come from there, being an orphaned child, homeless, having no emotional support whatsoever, no family when he arrived—to go from this completely deprived existence to achieving what he did, it speaks volumes for his character.

First, apart from the courage of conviction, the determination and the sacrifices that he made, to make this big decision and to find the strength to move on, and not be a victim of circumstance—I think there is so much learning in that. The importance of forgiveness. The importance of moving forward. Because that is the only way wounds can heal. And that is the only ways things can evolve and change and societies can change. Through forgiveness. And through moving on.

And its all there in the film. And it’s all there in his life. And it’s all fact. That’s what’s so amazing.

Yes, that is fascinating. In terms of sports stories, so many times it is an example of personal triumph over obstacles. Milkha Singh is an example of a living legend who is in our midst today and exemplifies the qualities you mentioned. Do you feel that this film pulls in other themes, besides being a sports story about an individual’s ability to run faster than other people in the world?
Farhan Akhtar: Sports in the film is really a background topic. Instead of an athlete he (Singh) could have become a singer or a doctor, anything that he chose to be, and he would have created a name for himself. It’s just that he had a natural ability to run fast. The sports aspect is important because that’s what he made his name in, but the film is not about Milkha Singh the athlete. The film is about Milkha Singh the human being. And that, I think, reaches out. It’s universally applicable to whoever you are.

All of us have fields of failure. Many of us have the ability to give a lot of ourselves. I don’t know how many of us have the ability to go a step further and give all of ourself.And the way he started his life gives us a reference point, that things are possible if you believe in them, despite all odds. And things are possible if you believe in yourself and your abilities, and do not mind making huge sacrifices to try and achieve them. That is the universal message in the story. Eventually he’s (Singh) a human being who’s been through many things that you will completely identify with and relate to.
He emerged a winner, although he is remembered, in the athletic world, for having come fourth in the Olympics. For not having won a medal. For someone who came fourth in the Olympics, why do you remember him so fondly? And why do you remember him with so much admiration? Because he won at something else. He was a winner in a much bigger context that the Olympics cannot be the defining moment of.

You have such a wide repertoire in terms of being a director as well as an actor. Your films are known for contemporary urbanity and wit, a Godardian (Jean-Luc Godard) sophistication, but here you are dealing with nostalgia. Do you want to share with our readers some of your experiences working with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, and how you felt about being an actor? Did you find yourself putting on your Director’s hat and saying, well, I would do it this way?

Farhan Akhtar: No, that doesn’t happen. Almost every time I’m asked this question, I feel it’s a bit unfair to the people that I work with. And I don’t feel that’s right. And honestly, film-making is nothing so watertight. It’s not a “You do this job and I do this job and we shall never ever speak about each other’s contribution to the film.” There are many conversations that happen, and the actor-director work closely together, especially during the making of the film. What you see on film eventually is a result of a dialog between two people. And two people trying to understand what each other would really like for that part, or for that film, or for that scene, or for that moment. That’s what we do. And I don’t know what else to call that. I don’t know what else it can be called apart from collaboration.

And working with Rakeysh for me was great. I’ve been really really fortunate to work with directors who help me get close to the material, and have a feel for what it is they want to tell and what they want to make. For me, Rakeysh’s temperament was phenomenal. He was very clear about the film in his head. And at the same time, he was so trusting. Whether it was me, or Sonam, or Pavan Malhotra, or Yograj Singh, all of us, went out there, as the people playing the characters, and did what we felt was instinctively correct for us. So it was a really great experience working with him.

Thank you so much for your time. All the best!

Farhan Akhtar: Thank You!

Geetika Pathania Jain

Dr. Geetika Pathania Jain is a former Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. An award-winning writer and editor, Geetika earned her doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin and attended Purdue...