“I have always been someone who likes to challenge the status quo. It’s difficult for me to fall prey to a popular opinion or an opinion that someone has of me that I don’t agree with. ‘Why him’ (my casting in the film being judged) gave me a great impetus to perform better” –
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s celebrated biographical sports drama Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (BMB) completed 10 years yesterday. Farhan Akhtar, who ably carried the huge responsibility of essaying the Flying Sikh on his sculpted shoulders, looks back at the film, its legacy and his own casting that was judged by many and other finer details in this interaction with BT. Read on…
When Lagaan completed 20 years, Aamir Khan had said that a film’s ultimate test is how well it ages. “Every film cannot stand the test of time,” he said. Do you think Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has aged well? Looking back, is there anything that you would do differently today?
My opinion on this will be biased because I truly loved the film. I genuinely believe without a doubt that it’s a well-made film with a powerful story. I am just very fortunate to be in it. I would have loved it as much if it was someone else’s. I agree with what Aamir has said that films that can stand the test of time, are the ones that mean something. They change the way you think or perceive and approach life. When you leave the theatre thinking something inside you has inherently changed, that emotion will always stay with you. I feel BMB is one such film.
What do you think the film truly stands for on a human level, beyond marking the sporting achievements of a legend?
It speaks about the triumph of the human will, of achieving things in the face of the most incredible odds and biggest adversities. It’s a tremendous human story of rising from nothing to great heights, which makes it so inspirational. What sets the film apart is how grounded and rooted the story is. It is a human story told in a simple, organic way by Rakeysh and Prasoon Joshi (writer). It didn’t manipulate you. From Milkhaji running for milk… to all the real-life moments of his life placed in the right order, touched people’s hearts. The film put the spotlight back on athletics and the role of fitness in one’s life. BMB has a legacy of its own.
Though the film back then was widely appreciated, some also thought it was too long (3 hours 9 minutes). Did you have any reservations about it?
We were talking about a person’s life story from the time that he was a little boy, all the way to his 20s. It required the viewer to feel what Milkhaji sees in the end, that cathartic moment when he goes to Pakistan and faces his past. That needed an understanding of the hell that he went through and his arduous life journey, so I never had any issues with the length of the film. There are many people who were moved by the film, and they too will disagree with this point of view. I feel these things are also subjective. Two people sitting next to each other in a theatre can have completely different opinions.
You have spoken about being judged when you were cast for the movie (for not being a Punjabi actor). It was also said that Akshay Kumar was the first choice for the film. Did these initial opinions pump you up to push yourself even harder?
Any form of adversity can lead to two things – you either crumble under pressure or you rise, face it and challenge it in the best possible way. I have always been someone who likes to challenge the status quo. It’s difficult for me to fall prey to a popular opinion or an opinion that someone has of me that I don’t agree with. It gave me a great impetus to perform better, to prove anybody who may have had a doubt about me in their head, wrong. It was one of the many driving forces through the making of that film. I feel that when it comes to casting, films have a destiny. I have directed and written films. When I start writing them, I have certain actors in mind, and it pans out differently. You end up working with someone else. When you look back, you realise that no one could have done it better than the one who made the cut. Films have a destiny. They eventually attract the cast that is right for them and vice versa. It’s what Rumi says, ‘What you seek is seeking you’.
A decade later, what about the film continues to stay with you?
It’s the entire process. Right from meeting Rakeysh in the edit studio where he first told me about the film until the final day of the shoot, I remember everything vividly. The most striking memory is of me meeting Milkhaji and his family for the first time and hearing his story from him. The lasting impression, the one that has stayed with me is seeing other sportsmen around Milkha Singh and the respect he commanded. They looked up to him for motivation and he took time regardless of what he was doing to speak with each and every athlete that he met. He asked them about their training and goals. For me that was fulfilling to see and learn from. Not many people know that Mikhaji came to our set just once. We were shooting one of the races in Delhi and I remember asking him why he won’t come again. He said it was a life he had lived a long time ago and seeing it happen again would bring back too many memories, so he’d just wait and watch the film instead.
Any inspiring words of Milkhaji that you still remember?
He spoke about his life in detail but otherwise he was a man of few words. He told me, “The only thing I expect from you is for you to work hard.” As an athlete he worked harder than anyone else. He is remembered for that. In that vein, as an actor my attempt was for people to recognise that hard work. My fuel for discipline came from him asking me, ‘I hope you are working hard (smiles).”
You were 38 when you worked on the film. The body transformation was insane. How tough was it to achieve that in your late 30s?
Whenever you need to undergo any sort of transformation in a shorter span of time, it’s essential to have a good team around you. I had the best people around me. It was less about what the body is going to look like and more about how I am going to feel as an athlete. To get into the mindset of an athlete was the larger challenge. When you train that hard, the body eventually follows. Your muscles don’t have a choice. The body will start looking good. It’s about getting the discipline of an athlete right. No matter where your friends are heading, who is celebrating what anniversary, you need to sleep, eat and work out on time. That for me was the bigger challenge.
Did you ever have a moment of self-doubt while prepping for the character? How did you overcome that feeling?
Especially when you are portraying someone flesh and blood, bringing someone’s real story to screen, there is always doubt. It keeps you on your toes. The minute you take things for granted, ‘oh I can do this with my eyes closed’ mindset, is when you begin to make mistakes. Going back to your earlier question, of someone asking me ‘Why you’ for this film, it’s a reason to perform better. It’s walking a really fine line between being confident in the performance but at the same time having an element of doubt. Someone as incredibly gifted as Mike Tyson, has said that every time he walked into a ring, he would portray that he was the most confident boxer who cannot be beaten but, on the inside, he was anxious. Instead of suppressing, you need to channelise that worry as your fuel.