When I first met Milkhaji, something resonated. Though his struggle was of another level and magnitude, in a tiny way I identified with the challenges of coming from a non-privileged background (a small town) and the struggle to find a footing on your own merit. It requires every ounce of your ability and hard work.
It took me over two years to write Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (BMB)'s story, screenplay, dialogues and songs. Scripting BMB was humbling; I wrote, rewrote several drafts. There were documentaries, books and statistics available on Milkhaji's sporting life. As a writer, my approach was not to mirror but interpret his life for a film. It's a take on the man behind the athlete. We met; I listened to his life story several times over and then gently took him into areas he had locked away in his memories.
Then, one day, I stopped meeting him, stopped reading everything related to the project. I just wanted to let my imagination fly. I decided it would be a human story and that's the route I took, subsequently creating many incidents in the film that may not have happened in real life but could have happened. So the film was based on my imagination yet rooted in reality. If you aim to be authentic, you have to borrow from your life, your sensibilities, and your experiences. That is the only way to ensure authenticity.
My interpretation of his life and struggles is there to see on the screen; it has universally struck a chord.
But recently, what moved me was when his family mentioned that in the last days of his life, he was watching BMB repeatedly and was remembering me.
I had met him and dear Nirmalji just a month ago and spoke to him on the phone again recently " his voice frail but his spirit strong.
We have much to learn from Milkhaji, no matter what our pursuit is.
First, be good at what you do " hone your craft. Milkha Singh used to run so hard during his races, even during some practice ones, that he would often faint after completing them; this is what you call giving your 100%. Then, believe in yourself and the force above at the same time.
More importantly, as I have written in the climax, the bigger battle in life is to face your demons. When you do, you realise that they are not as big as they were in your mind.
Whilst meeting him in Delhi sometime in April, I happened to ask him how he felt, especially about life and death, now that he was running his 92nd year. Without a second of hesitation, he responded, "I look at the positive side of things. I look at Fauja Singh who at the age of 110 is still running. Life and death is not in our hands but staying optimistic is."
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag encapsulated his journey. Life had thrown enough at him for anyone to run away. But Milkhaji bhaage nahi. Woh daude. Daudna ek decision hai, a determined endeavour. Mushkilon se bhagna nahi hai; daud lagani hai unke saath.
Whilst writing the film's screenplay and dialogues, I'd managed to potently put across Milkhaji's character; his sheer perseverance and putting every ounce of his being into his sport and life were what I wanted to capture more of. So I wrote the song, zinda. I wanted to capture the spirit of how Milkhaji used to faint a number of times after his races.
"Zinda hai toh pyala poora bhar le, zindagi ka yeh ghada le, ek saans me chada le, hichkiyon mein kya hai marna, poora mar le." He believed in not holding back and ran every race of his life as though it was the final one.
Milkha Singhji was amongst the most zinda people one could meet. His undying spirit will continue to inspire all of us, including Rakesh, Farhan, Shankar Ehsan Loy and the team of BMB, who had the honour of knowing and connecting with him.
As he races to a new frontier, my heartfelt gratitude to him for blazing a trail for generations that would be motivated by him.
(Prasoon Joshi, one of India's most celebrated lyricists and screenwriters, is the writer of the film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a biographical sports drama based on the life of Milkha Singh)