It’s time moviemakers looked back at sporting icons

“When I saw the uncut version of the movie a few days ago I knew that this movie was going to leave a deep impression on the viewers. …I just hope that Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was able to motivate a few of our Indian kids to take up sports as a career.”

On July 9, just three days before the movie was released, Jeev Milkha Singh, India’s most successful golfer, wrote in his blog, “Fathers are the first heroes of their sons (and perhaps of their daughters as well). Some fathers are the life-long heroes but some go much ahead to become the heroes for the entire nation”. Jeev is the son of one such national hero: Milkha Singh, the legendary sprinter known as the flying Sikh and the real hero of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (BMB).

SUCCESS OF BMB

As any Bollywood insider would tell you, the first Friday when the movie is released determines the fate of a movie. It was on July 12, Friday when BMB became an instant run-away hit. It is indeed the Flying Sikh of a movie. There had been hundreds of other box-office hits before this. There will be thousands more after this. What makes this movie special is the “deep impression” it created on the viewers’ minds.

Milkha Singh was not an obscure athlete in India. He is a revered and celebrated athlete whose views are often sought by the media on sporting matters. Yet, most of the people – even the avid sports fans – had been unaware of his real story, until the film came along.

STORY OF BMB

The movie starts with the most famous race in Milkha’s career – 400 meter race in the 1960 Rome Olympics. The only information about the race hitherto available had been an oft-repeated story that Milkha Singh looked back while running, and that looking back and subsequent slowing down cost him his medal. The film seeks to answer the question why he looked back and slowed down.

The opening sequences of the movie provide us with the answer. Somebody shouted “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” (Run Milkha Run) from the sidelines motivating him towards the finishing line. The phrase touched a raw nerve on Milkha’s mind. It was the same phrase his father screamed last when he was being killed in Pakistan during partition, asking Milkha to run away from the rioters. Milkha’s run started from there. Although he did not win any medal at the Rome Olympics, he went to Pakistan later, where he was born, and beat the fastest runner there. These events, and what happened in between, form the crux of the movie. Sports and movies Biopics are rare in Indian cinema. Biopics of sporting heroes are even rarer. The only other movie in this particular genre is Paan Singh Tomar. There are reports that a film is going to be made on the life of Mohammad Azharuddin.

There have also been some documentaries, like Kala Hiran (or Black Deer), made on the life of a Kerala based footballer, I.M. Vijayan. Future generations would be surprised not to find a single comprehensive documentary even on Sachin Tendulkar.

PAAN SINGH TOMAR

It is a movie about a soldier-turned-athleteturned- fugitive. Tomar was a soldier in the Indian army, where he was known for two things: an enormous appetite and a tireless efficiency to run. In the sports division of the army, he became an athlete of national repute with international exposure. He held the national record in 3000 meter steeple chase for a long time. He retired from sports in 1972.

In 1981, his name came in the limelight again, though not on the sports page. He had allegedly killed a powerful landlord in his village and was on the run. There had been reports that he had joined the notorious bandits of Chambal. He was killed during a police shoot out later that year. Tigmanshu Dhulia made a beautiful movie, Paan Singh Tomar, based on his life. Irrfan Khan, the less glamorous of the Bollywood’s Khans, essayed the title role with near perfection.

WHAT MOVIES CAN DO TO SPORTS?

Films can change public imagination like no other art can. While Tomar was elevated to the status of a national hero, Milkha Singh regained his rightful place among the pantheon of India’s sporting greats, after the release of this movie.

It would not be wrong to say that Milkha Singh would have been forgotten had the movie not been released. The movie has made Milkha Singh a household name. Unlike sports, movies have a universal appeal. After the release of the movie, he is known and recognized even by people who do not follow sports.

Hollywood and other countries’ film industries too have some examples of films that have made an athlete or a player immortal in public memory. There are a couple of Hollywood films – Ali and The Greatest – on Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest ever boxer. The films narrate the story of how Cassius Clay became Ali. His experiences of racial abuse form a compelling narrative backdrop of the movie.

There is an English film on George Best, the Irish footballer, who set alight the English football league in 1960s and 1970s. He had rock-star good looks to go with his immense soccer skills. However, once his career was over he ruined his life on wine and women. The film Best offers a first-hand view on his life.

Perhaps the closest to the Milkha story is that of Jesse Owens, who won four Olympic gold medals in Athletics at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Owens’ performance was a direct proof of the absurdity of Hitler’s Aryan Supremacy theory. That Owens, a black athlete, did it right under Hitler’s nose makes his story an example of the triumph of human race.

Owens was racially discriminated in USA, his home country. Such experiences forced Owens to come up with the memorable line: “It was FDR [Franklin D. Rooswelt, the then American President] who insulted me, not Hitler”. The movie The Jesse Owens Story narrates these and much more about the legendary athlete.

Champions is a British movie based on the life of Bob Champion, who won the 1981 Grand National steeple chase after having been treated for testicular cancer. On cricket, the tragic story of Hansie Cronje has been made into a film in South Africa. Another cricket movie that is not exactly a biopic but a truthful narration of an era is Chariots of Fire. It searches the genesis of the dominance of West Indies in the 1970s and 1980s.

All these movies have attempted to bring not just the lives of the sportsmen but the sport too into the limelight, thereby demanding the attention of the general public. Successful movies help in enhancing the popularity of the sport.

WHAT BMB DOES NOT TELL YOU?

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Prasoon Joshi, the director and scriptwriter of BMB, respectively, have taken liberties with actual facts while making the movie. Farhan Akhtar, who played the role of Milkha, has given a sensational performance. Yet, there are many things that BMB does not tell you about Milkha Singh and athletics. In particular, the final race of 400 meters in 1960 Rome Olympics, which was one of the first instances when the photo finish technology was used to determine the winner, spotting the difference between the finishing of Otis Davis of the USA and Carl Kaufmann of Germany. Both of them clocked the same time too, 44.9 seconds (it must be remembered that Milkha never finished the race under 45 seconds).

Kaufmann, by making a desperate diving lunge, had appeared to touch the finishing line first. In those days, winner of the race was determined by checking whose torso touches the finishing line first. The photograph used for the photo-finish scrutiny clearly showed Davis finishing ahead by that yardstick.

Davis, a black American, was more desperate than Milkha Singh or Kaufmann to win the race, as he had been brought up in a racially divisive environment. Athletic tracks were perhaps the only place where he was treated like a normal human being. It was once said that the 400 meters race is won by the athlete “who slows down least”. And Davis was a master in not slowing down. His life story, in which he emerged from a poor background becoming a world famous athlete, is worthy of another biopic. So are the lives of many other Indian sporting heroes.

WHY FILMMAKERS MUST MAKE MORE BIOPICS

A movie is long overdue on Dhyan Chand, the Bradman of Indian hockey. The public must know the struggles of a villager emerging from obscurity to excel against the world’s best. That will raise not only their self respect and patriotism but their interest in the game of hockey too. Indian football has had some really exceptional talent, from P.K. Banerjee to Baichung Bhutia, whose only constraint was that they played in a wrong team. A well-made biopic would help to re-establish their place in Indian sporting history. Same is the case with volleyball too. The story of Jimmy George – an ace spikier, still adored in his native land of Kerala, who was killed in a road accident in Italy while playing the Italian volleyball league – can inspire a poignant movie.

The life stories of Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar are welcome too in the form of biopics. In this era of match fixing in cricket, the current generation would surely find the selfless performances of the earlier generation inspiring, refreshing and worth emulating. Lala Amarnath is another legendary cricketer who is slowly fading away from the mainstream media attention. He is perhaps the first home-grown cricket superstar from India who was well liked even in Pakistan. There is a delightful story about him visiting Pakistan as the coach of Indian team. Upon arrival in Pakistan, the visiting team found a luxury Mercedes car waiting outside the airport. A politically powerful Indian royal, the manager of Indian team, thought it was for him. When he approached the car, he was brushed aside casually with the words. “Tu udhar jaa, yeh to Lalaji keliye hai” [You go there (to the team bus). This is for Lalaji]. A number of other cricketers from Nawab Pataudi to Anil Kumble have had varied life stories that would make riveting celluloid experiences. Like Milkha Singh, they are also fathers who became national heroes. Their blood-and-sweat lives should inspire not just their kids but millions of kids in the country too.