x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Farhan Akhtar on Bhaag Milkha Bhaag: 'I actually lived the life of an athlete'

We chat with the actor Farhan Akhtar about playing the Indian athlete Milkha Singh in a new biopic.

Milkha Singh, centre, Farhan Akhtar, right, and the director Rakeysh Mehra. AFP
Milkha Singh, centre, Farhan Akhtar, right, and the director Rakeysh Mehra. AFP

The actor Farhan Akhtar tells Ujala Ali Khan about the challenges of taking on the role of the Indian sprinter Milkha Singh in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a biopic that celebrates the human spirit.

On being approached for the role

I have known Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra [the director] for many years, and when he called me, I told him I would be happy to meet him. We had a quick chat in my studio, where he told me the whole story in 20 minutes and explained what he wanted to capture in the film, which is essentially the human spirit. It felt like an amazing opportunity to me and I was keen to do it.

On the film

We all know Milkha Singh as a sporting personality but don’t know much about his personal life. The film shows his amazing journey – from overcoming dire circumstances to winning a gold medal for his country in a foreign land. It’s a human and emotional story about aspirations, hard work and what the human spirit is capable of -achieving.

On preparing for the role

I had a huge responsibility towards Milkha Singh and his family. They have been extremely trusting of this film, of me playing the part. It really was no-holds-barred in terms of trying to do the best that I possibly could, and to do as much justice to the role as was emotionally and physically possible.

For me, the preparation was part of the film. It was about becoming this character – someone who worked harder than others to achieve his dreams. All the work that I put in, all the effort and the sacrifices – it was about following the same philosophy Milkha Singh followed as an athlete.

On training to play a world-class athlete

I went through a tremendous amount of training for nearly seven and a half months before we started shooting, and then again for the entire duration of shooting, which lasted about 10 or 11 months. So I was training for more than a year and a half.

I actually lived the life of an athlete; I wasn’t just pretending to be one. Now that the film is done, I am healthy and fit, of course, but I’m definitely not in that kind of -athletic condition or in peak performance mode.

On what Akhtar the filmmaker brings to the table as an actor

When you are a filmmaker, you are a lot more sympathetic to the frustrations that come with the job, compared with people who haven’t worn that hat. So I could understand what Rakeysh was going through when things sometimes didn’t happen the way he wanted it. Having the experience of working as a director might have helped, but not in a very conscious way, such as offering him advice, for instance.

I was there as an actor and my job was to facilitate Rakeysh’s vision. At times, it was by asking the right questions that would help me clarify things in my head, so that I could perform the way he wanted me to. It was all about trying to see his -vision through.

On what he’s taking from the experience

It has been a life-altering experience for me, as far as my work goes. It has been so memorable that I am sure it will have some impact on my life sooner or later. What that will be, only time will tell.

And there constantly was something happening on set. Every single day, there was something to look forward to, something new and challenging, making you feel you really must push yourself. You will believe me when you see the film.



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