Sixty-one years later, India’s legendary “Flying Sikh”, who died at a Chandigarh hospital on Friday after a month-long battle with COVID-19, had recalled with great fondness his close links with the Kapoors and his on-off relationship with cinema in an interview with PTI in March this year.
Singh, who missed an Olympic medal by a whisker at the 400-m final, coming fourth in one of the most relived races in Indian athletic history, continued his friendship with the Kapoors for years later.
“Mera achha yaarana tha Raj Kapoor ke saath (I was good friends with Raj Kapoor, celebrated filmmaker and Prithviraj Kapoor’s son). When I used to go to Bombay to run, I would often meet Raj Kapoor and he would take me to RK Studio,” the 91-year-old said.
In the interview, shortly before he contracted Covid, he also spoke of his early cinema memories and why the trend of sport biopics and films is important to highlight the struggles that athletes go through.
Born in the troubled years before Independence in Punjab, he saw his parents being killed during Partition and survived the harsh world of refugee camps in Delhi.
But the man who grew up alongside India as it were, forging his own identity as the new nation evolved, had many happy memories too.
In the late 1930s, when he was not quite 10, Singh recalled following some children from his village Govindpura, now in Pakistan Punjab, to watch a silent film.
“Children from my village were going to watch something which was being shown on a curtain and I went with them. One could only see the actors moving their hands and legs, there was no sound. But it was a wonderful experience. There was no TV, mobile, or video (streamers) in those times. It is a different world today,” he said.
‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh flies off…into eternity
There weren’t too many films after that. He never watched a film after 1960 – not until the biopic of his own life and struggles, “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” in 2013, which had Farhan Akhtar in the lead.
He had fond memories of 1940-50s classics such as friend Raj Kapoor’s “Awara” and “Shree 420”, and “Anmol Ghadi” starring Suraiya and Noor Jehan.
“That was the time of Raj Kapoor, Suraiya, Shamshad Begum, and Noor Jehan. I didn’t watch a film after the 1960s. I have no idea who all were the good heroes, directors or producers in the ’80s. The only film I watched after all those years was my own film.”
He also spoke of his fondness for Akhtar and “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, a relationship that continued till the end. He wanted to promote the duo’s upcoming boxing drama “Toofan”.
“I enjoyed watching ”Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” very much. Many such sports films should be made so that the upcoming generation draws inspiration from the sportspersons of our country, win medals at the Olympics and Asian Games, and make India proud,” Singh said.
He also credited Mehra, a former swimmer, for his ability to translate the “pain of being a sportsperson” on screen.
His son, professional golfer Jeev Milkha Singh, had watched the director’s 2006 acclaimed hit “Rang De Basanti”. And Singh said his son decided that rights to his story would go to Mehra.
“Rakeysh was once a top swimmer in the country. That is why he is able to make such films,” the ‘Flying Sikh’ added.
The veteran sprinter welcomed the trend of such features and said he now tries to watch as many films in the genre as possible.
“I know there is a film on (MS) Dhoni. Films are also being made on other sports personalities like P T Usha and Kapil Dev. It’s a very good trend,” the Padma Shri recipient noted.
In the interview, published on March 23 this year, the former track and field sprinter, who was introduced to the sport while serving in the Indian Army in the 1950s, spoke of his fitness regime that included running even at this age.
“Exercise has kept me safe during COVID-19,” he said.
But that was not to be. He fought the virus for a month but unfortunately did not win this one.
Days before his death, his wife, former national volleyball captain Nirmal Kaur, succumbed to the infection.