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Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

Running Away With It: Farhan Akhtar on 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag'

There aren't many Bollywood stars one would look forward to speaking with for the second time in the space of about ten days.

What's worse than an agitated/tired/bored/a smidgen-too-highly-strung Bollywood star is the publicist of the Bollywood star breathing down your neck, dictating what questions you're allowed to ask. 

Farhan Akhtar is different and not just because of that dangerously delightful six-pack, the easy, alluring smile and the swoon-inducing shock of curls. 

There's always a reassuring sense that Akhtar's personality and sensibilities run quite a way deeper than that alluring exterior. 

His myriad talents are the first clue; singer, songwriter, actor, director, producer and - most recently - social activist. 

And then there's the endeavour. 

There are no half measures with this guy, whether it's taking the 'Don' franchise to new levels of dubiousness, staying up late to plug his new production  'Fukrey' or taking up altitude training and something called "Lydiard hill training" for his latest role as legendary Indian athlete Milkha Singh in 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag'.

Akhtar's physical transformation for the role is sensational, enhanced by the fact that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the famous runner and Commonwealth and Asian Games Gold Medallist.

Singh's story is a deeply inspirational one; a young Punjabi boy with no athletic aspirations who overcomes the loss of his family during the brutal days of partition to become arguably India's greatest track and field star.

In an industry that is prone to often outrageous embellishment it's reassuring that a story as remarkable as that of Milkha Singh's has been placed in the hands of Farhan Akhtar and director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, the man behind the BAFTA-nominated 'Rang De Basanti'.

The UKAsian's Bollywood Editor Poonam Joshi caught up with Farhan prior to the film's massive promotional drive in London. 

Poonam Joshi: I must ask Farhan, there's been a lot of attention on your six pack and incredible physical conditioning for the role.  Is there a danger that's going to distract from this amazing story?

 Farhan Akhtar: There does seem to be serious interest in that part of the role!  I can tell you that I'm not in the same shape for sure.  Preparation for the role has really pushed me to actually maintain a healthy lifestyle.  But contrary to what everyone thinks, we don't have all the time in the world to work out.  So I haven't been able to maintain the full six-pack.  But I don't think it's been a distraction.  We have had previews of the film and everyone has loved it.  When the film is done you are completely swayed by the emotion of the journey and I don't think people will come out thinking about my physical condition. 

PJ: How do you even begin to tell a story as inspirational as Milkha Singh's?

 FA: My responsibility was to enable Rakesh to tell the story that he wanted to tell.  After that, when I met Milkhaji and his family, I took inspiration from them, taking in some of the emotions and kind of building a blueprint for the role but how it worked was that Milkhaji and his family had entrusted their story to Rakesh and had great faith in him as a director so all I had to do was to take the cue from Rakesh.  The other thing is that growing up in India, we all knew who Milkha Singh was.  One of Independent India's first sporting icons.  He's inspired a generation of athletes and to this day, when you ask runners who their influence is - even today's teenagers - his name invariably comes up.  But I never knew what went into the making of this man and his legend.  Where did he come from?  What was his life like before he became this hero?  Who inspired him?  How did he motivate himself?  What sacrifices did he have to make?  When Rakeysh first related the story to me, I was shocked that I didn't know much about Milkhaji's life.  It is such a powerful journey and I'm just so honoured to be able to share that story with the rest of the world. 

PJ: Partition played a huge part in shaping who he became didn't it?

 FA: His journey in terms of defining who he was and creating an identity for himself really started from the moment of partition when he was separated from his family.  Suddenly he was orphaned overnight, found himself in a new city, in a brand new country and he had to start creating a life for himself.  I think that's where the back story really begins.  He was the youngest in the family and the family had a very comfortable life which was utterly destroyed.  To then overcome that tragedy and achieve what he did was phenomenal. 

PJ: People say that India missed an opportunity by not tapping into Milkhaji's fame and success in developing athletics in India.  Are you hoping to inspire people with the film?

 FA: It would be presumptuous to think at the outset that the film will inspire people.  I hope, that young athletes and even people who are involved in the administration of sports in India can take some form of inspiration from the story and try and do better and feel more motivated to try and win more athletic medals and apply more attention in those areas that have been neglected.  As far as why it has not happened yet, I don't know and I complained that it has not happened yet is because I think it's a lot more different now.

PJ: There's also a school of thought which is asking how Milkha Singh's achievements are different to, say, P T Usha or other Indian athletes who have competed well inside India and Asia but haven't been contenders beyond that.

 FA: I don't think it's right to be so cynical towards his achievements.  I mean, if you think about it, he ran 80 professional races and won gold in 77 of those races.  That included gold medals at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the European Circuit.  Well before Cricket became our sporting identity, this guy travelled across the world representing his country and giving Indian sport an international identity.  We were then only known for being good Hockey but they weren't performing that great internationally either.  For a lot of people it was a shock to see an Indian coming into the athletics field and having so much success. 

Given the background he came from and how he was trained and the resources that were available to him, that was an incredible feat.  I don't think we've really had an individual sportsperson who has achieved so much so consistently since then.  The amazing thing is that when he joined the army he didn't have any idea about athletics to the extent that he wasn't even aware of the difference between the 100m and 200m!  It just so happened that all the soldiers had to participate in a cross country run which was part of their training and one of the instructors noticed that his pace was amazing and he could sustain that pace over a long distance.  That's when he was chosen to represent the army athletics team and the rest is history. 

PJ: Finally, there are already murmurs as to how a Mumbaikar actor who grew up speaking pure Urdu at home can possibly embody a quintessentially Punjabi man...

 FA: As an actor it goes without saying that every performance will be analyzed and scrutinized and reviewed from all kinds of different angles.  That's part and parcel of the job and that's fine.  You're always putting yourself up for that by the very nature of the work that you do.  We have an outstanding, incredibly talented director in Rakesh.  He's someone you place your absolute faith as an actor to guide you.  So personally for me, the important thing is that he is satisfied with the work.  Also, Milkhaji and his family have seen the movie and they are so happy and proud of what we have achieved.  That's a huge bonus.

'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag' is in UK cinemas July 12

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