'His story speaks to everyone because it's such a universal message that you need belief in yourself first to succeed.'
Actor-director Farhan Akhtar developed a familial bond with Milkha Singh while working on the biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in 2013 and believes that the legendary athlete, who rose out of "the worst possible circumstances" and found himself a new identity, will forever be a symbol of self-belief and determination for generations to come.
The 91-year-old sprint legend died at a hospital in Chandigarh on Friday after a month-long battle with COVID-19, during which he also lost his wife and former national volleyball captain Nirmal Kaur to the same ailment.
"His story speaks to everyone because it's such a universal message that you need belief in yourself first to succeed," Farhan said, paying tribute to the legendary athlete.
"I feel that he's still with us because Milkha Singh is more than just a man. His presence, his energy will always be with us, it will always live with the people whose lives he's touched. So I really don't feel that he's gone anywhere."
The actor, who played the lead role in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, said working on the movie gave him a lifetime's worth of memories and cherished moments.
The film opens with the 1960 Olympics race where Singh narrowly missed a bronze medal finishing fourth and cuts through his childhood and early struggle, the Partition days and ends with his winning race in Pakistan, defeating their national hero Abdul Khaliq. After that famous win, he earned the moniker 'The Flying Sikh' from the then Pak President General Ayub Khan.
Farhan said it was a huge relief for the film's entire team to not let him down in sharing his story with the world.
"It's difficult to summarise in one sentence (what he meant to me). He was family to me, apart from, of course, me having absolutely cherished memories of the time that we spend together. I've learned a lot from him. And I'm just so thankful that I was fortunate enough to spend this kind of time with him and just be in his presence. He was a very special person," Farhan said.
"So just to be in that aura and to be in that energy and to be included in his family, to be welcomed with so much love, with so much warmth, and with absolutely open arms, I'm truly grateful and I feel very blessed."
Milkha Singh had many ups and downs in his life that saw his parents being killed during the Partition, him indulging in petty crimes to survive in refugee camps of Delhi, going to jail for those, and joining the Army after three failed attempts.
Farhan said it was an honour to represent someone like Milkha Singh on the big screen as he was somebody "who rose out of really the worst possible circumstances, who created an identity with his sheer will and determination, with working harder than anybody else".
"To go from somebody who had a lost childhood, who didn't have a place to stay, who had nothing to eat for a while and no shoes to wear, you know, to rise from there and be considered India's most legendary athlete... that journey in itself says so much if you just look at the two polar ends of it," the actor said.
Recalling their first meeting while he was training in Mumbai to play the sprinter in the 2013 Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra-directed blockbuster, Farhan said he was "absolutely amazed and in awe" to see him interact with other athletes, who had come from different parts of Mumbai to train there.
The actor said there was "electric energy" when athletes heard that Milkha Singh had come and they all gathered to see him and to seek his blessings.
"And he took time out for every single one of them. He took time out to speak to all of them, to find out their stories, to know their discipline of sport... He gave them tips on how to train, he spoke to them about the importance of working hard, it was as if he was in no hurry although he had things to do that I was completely aware of.
"That was what was so amazing about the man that no matter who he was with, no matter what he was doing, if somebody wanted his time, he would make time for them and make them feel special in the time he spent with them."
Milkha Singh was determined to defeat the virus when he was hospitalised but unfortunately, that did not happen.
Farhan said that's who he was: "a fighter who fought all his life to achieve what he wanted, he fought for what he felt was right and stood for things that he believed in. That's why he is this amazing legendary person that all of us respect".