Nihal Koshie: It is said that when the makers of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag approached you, you gave away the rights for Re 1. Why did you do that?
I have only seen movies of my generation—Mother India, Shree 420, Awaara. Those days, we had actors such as Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar... I haven't seen a single movie after 1960. So I don't know the new directors or actors. Recently, three to four directors had come to my house asking for rights to make a movie on my book and offered me between Rs 50 lakh and a crore. My son (golfer Jeev Milkha Singh) is a movie buff—he has to watch one after every match—and he told me, 'Papa, if we have to give the film to somebody, then it will be Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra because I have seen Rang De Basanti and I liked it. And if you are in need of money, then I will give you a cheque for Rs 1.5 crore, but we will give the story for Re 1'. So it was my son's decision. But in the agreement that we signed, I also put in a clause, saying 10-15 per cent of the profits from the movie would go to the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust.
Coomi Kapoor: Can you tell us about your early years?
We were from a village that's now in Pakistan's Muzaffargarh district, in Kot Addu tehsil. Our village was 10 km away from the city. The boys had to walk barefoot for 10 km from the village to the school in Kot Addu. The stretch was sandy and in the months of May and June, you can imagine how hot it would get. We would run for a kilometre, stop when we found a patch of grass, cool our feet and then run again. Also, there were two 50-ft-wide canals that we had to cross. We did not know how to swim but we would tie bamboo sticks to our feet. On our way back, we would run back 10 km. Everyday, we would cover 20 km. So I have seen a lot of hardship. I hope today's generation will be inspired by this film. During Partition, my parents, my brother and sisters were killed before my eyes.
Rakesh Sinha: How old were you then?
I was about 15.
Coomi Kapoor: How did you escape?
I ran away. When my father was dying, he told me, run or else they will kill you. I ran into the forest and then from there, I reached the station, entered the women's compartment and escaped from there. They were looking for any Hindu or Sikh to kill. At that time, there was hysteria all around and trains from both India and Pakistan pulled out of stations with dead bodies.
Nihal Koshie: Could you share with us your emotions when you had to go back to Pakistan, this time for an athletics meet?
During the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, I met Pakistani runner Abdul Khaliq. He won the 100 metres and I won the 400 metres. Then we had to run the 200-metre race. At the finish line, I pulled a muscle in my left leg and my left shoulder lurched forward. It was a photo finish, but because I had lurched forward, I won the race. Abdul Khaliq came second. That's when the Pakistanis took note of me—of this guy who had beaten Abdul Khaliq. Then in 1960, they invited me to Pakistan. I refused because I couldn't forget the night my parents had been killed in Pakistan. When this appeared in the press, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru called me to his home and convinced me to go. I could not refuse him and the next day, I went to Pakistan. When I reached the border at Wagah, they gave me a special welcome. They asked me to get on to an open jeep decked with flowers and from the border to Lahore, a distance of 15 km, there were people standing on either side with Indian and Pakistani flags and I stood waving at them. When I reached my room, I saw an Urdu paper with the headline: 'Milkha Singh aur Abdul Khaliq ki takkar'. Later, I saw banners on the streets of Lahore that said: 'Milkha Singh aur Abdul Khaliq ki takkar, India-Pakistan ki takkar'. I realised that Pakistan had actually invited me to see whether I was better than Abdul Khaliq or not. So on the day of the race, there were 7,000 people in the stadium—(then Pakistan President) General Ayub Khan was there also. When the race started, Abdul Khaliq took the lead. But with 50 metres to the finish line, I caught up with Abdul Khaliq and then even Makhan Singh (India) caught up with him. So not only had I defeated Abdul Khaliq, even Makhan Singh had defeated him. The entire stadium was silent. Later, when General Ayub gave away the medals, he whispered to me in Punjabi: 'You didn't run today, you flew'. So if Milkha Singh is called Flying Sikh, then that credit goes to Pakistan.
Rakesh Sinha: With athletes like you and Makhan Singh, India had this huge potential in athletics. Why doesn't the Indian government invest in athletics anymore?
Ever since Independence (till before the 2012 London Games), we have only produced five athletes who have reached the finals in Olympics—Milkha Singh in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Gurbachan Singh Randhawa in the 1964 Tokyo Games, Ram Singh in the 1976 Montreal Games, then P T Usha in the 1984 Olympics. After that came Anju George who missed the medal in long jump. I believe there is no dearth of talent in India. But what's missing is the ability to work hard. They want to achieve in one year what we did in 12 years. Secondly, there are 40,000 coaches in India, but we cannot name a single coach. The government has done a lot—there are enough stadiums, the latest equipment, money too. These coaches are government employees. I have always been saying coaches should be employed on contract. If an athlete runs 100 metres in 10 seconds, the coach should be given a deadline, say, four years, to take that athlete to nine seconds. If you cannot do that, then the coach should be fired and you have to hire someone else. Unless we are not strict, it is difficult to get results in athletics.
Dilip Bobb: How close is the movie to your real life? Because Bollywood usually takes liberties.
It's very true to facts. When I saw the film, I cried. I congratulated Farhan Akhtar, who was sitting next to me, and told him, 'Beta, your are a duplicate copy of Milkha Singh.' Rakeysh's (Omprakash Mehra) direction and Prasoon Joshi's dialogues made me cry.
Coomi Kapoor: What were your sentiments when you lost in the Rome Olympics by a whisker?
There are two things I will never forget till the day I die—the race at Rome Olympics and the death of my parents. In 1959, before the Rome Olympics, I was one of the best of eight in the world. After winning so many races, everyone believed that at the Rome Olympics, if there's anyone who can win the 400 metres race from India, it's Milkha Singh. Before this race, I was kept in a room alone for two days. And when I'm alone, I think and think. During the Rome Olympics, there was a two-day gap between the semi-finals and finals. I couldn't sleep those two days—I was carrying the burden of expectations. On the day of the race, I ran the first 250 yards with so much speed that I was ahead of all the other participants. But it was my bad luck that I got the higher lane. People behind you can judge how fast you can go. When I finished 250 metres, I began thinking if I will be able to finish 400 metres at all. It was at this point that my rhythm broke. In the last 100 metres, I saw three boys ahead of me. I tried to catch up with Malcolm Spence from South Africa; I had beaten him at the Commonwealth Games before coming to Rome. We finished almost together—he was third, I was fourth. I will never forget this till I die.
Somya Lakhani: Did you propose any changes to the movie once you watched it?
No. Everything looks fine so far.
I hope this generation is inspired by the film.
Dilip Bobb: There is one scene in the movie in which Milkha Singh kisses an Australian athlete. Did that actually happen?
It's true that people do stuff in their youth. Some do it openly, some secretly. But everyone does it. The message I wanted to send out to sportsmen through this movie was that a woman can put you on a pedestal and bring you down as well. The film shows her to be the first woman he meets and they (the filmmakers) said that it's essential to show these things for the movie to work with the audience.
D K Rituraj: This is a hypothetical question. Struggle has been an important part of your achievement and in your days, there weren't many facilities. If you had the facilities that athletes now have, how much do you think you would've achieved?
If Milkha Singh was born in present times, with all his struggles of the past, I think no one in the world would be able to break his record in the next 100 years. I worked so hard that I would have a bucketful of sweat every day. Can anyone do that now? Kids nowadays will not be able to do the kind of hard work we did. I once asked (hockey player) Dhyan Chand: 'Dada, why are you considered hockey's jaadugar?' He replied, 'Milkha Singhji, I used to tie a cycle tyre at the goal post and shoot 500 balls through that tyre'. It's been 55 years since Milkha Singh ran and in all this time, no person has surpassed my timing at the Rome Olympics.
Coomi Kapoor: Who recognised your talent?
Havaldar Gurdev Singh. In the Army, every soldier has to run. Only 15-20 days after I joined, I was told to run a cross-country. I asked him what a cross-country was. Everyone had to run five miles and the first 10 jawans would be selected for further training. Because of all the running I had done as a child, this was no big deal, I told myself. I started running fast but soon found myself overtaken. I came sixth, but I was in the top 10. After that, Havaldar Gurdev Singh got after us with a baton and made us train for all the inter-company competitions. Once, Havaldar Gurdev Singh asked me if I would run 400 metres at an athletics meet. I asked him what 400 metres meant. He said it covers the whole ground. There were 50 jawans and we ran barefoot. I came first.
Karthik Krishnaswamy: As a child, you ran 10 km to school and back. And then, you ran cross-country in the Army. Didn't you think of running middle- and long-distance events instead of the 400 metres?
No. Cross-country and athletic meets happen once in a year. At the Army centre's athletic meet, I would keep my dinner under my bed, and ask someone to guard it. Other boys would go to their rooms, play cards, carrom and so on. I would go to the grounds and run. One night, a brigadier saw me running. This is a sequence in the movie too. The brigadier asked me why I was running at night. I told him I don't get time during the day and so I practise at night. He asked me which company I was from. 'A company,' I replied. He simply said okay and went away. The next morning, the PT instructor asked me, 'What did you say to brigadier sahib? Why did you complain to him?' He hit me twice on my stomach twice with his baton. The next day, the JCO called me and said, 'So this is the recruit. Why did you complain about us? Why didn't you come to us?' In the Army, we have something called a 'fatigue time', where jawans would clean roads, do gardening and do other odd jobs. The brigadier converted my 3 pm-5 pm fatigue time into my training hour.
Siddharth Sharma: What do you believe is lacking in today's athletes and do you think you could have contributed more towards coaching?
During my time, we had trials. I would run my heart out. After the trials, I would fall, vomit, have stomach pains and headaches. We used to go through such hardships. But children nowadays are scared of trials. They think they'll be in a bad shape ahead of the real race. When you work hard and do test runs every week, as opposed to once a year, you'll know where you stand and whether you need improvement or not.
Ruchika Talwar: Do you still follow an exercise regime?
Absolutely. Many of my contemporaries are no more. I tell my old friends that they need to exercise as much as they eat. The tongue can harm you in two ways—talking and eating. If you talk too much, you'll have to pay for it. The other is what you eat. For good health, eat a little, exercise and avoid the company of old men. Stay with young people.
Transcribed by Debesh Banerjee and Pallavi Pundir