Ad filmmaker and producer Kailash Surendranath made the famous national integration film, Torch of Freedom, also known as Freedom Run, in 1985. The TV film featured sportspersons who were active then like Kapil Dev, PT Usha, Mervyn Fernandes and also past sports champions, one of whom was Milkha Singh. In an exclusive conversation with Free Press Journal, Kailash Surendranath remembered the special moments while making the film and his memories of Milkha Singh.
In 1985, I was working with Suresh Mallick for a short film titled Freedom Run for Lok Seva Sanchar Parishad for Doordarshan. The general brief given was to make a film that would make young Indians proud. We wanted to make a film that would give you viewers goosebumps while watching it. We had discussions and what resonated across the board was that it was apt to feature sports in the film. So we decided to make the film with them.
At that time the film Chariots of Fire was very popular. In that film, the Olympic torch was featured. We decided to do the same.
We made a list of the players for the film. But remember it was 1985—a time when there were no mobile phones. We had to make calls on landline and write letters to the sportspersons that we wanted to feature in the film. We had a long list of players, a number of hockey champions and captains, for instance.
I think Milkha Singh was largely forgotten by the generation that was present in 1984. Of course, everyone knew him as a legendary player and he was given many awards by the government as well. But he was more familiar to an earlier generation.
Milkha Singh is from Chandigarh and my wife Aarti’s family lives there as well. So, we met often for Aarti’s family weddings. When we got in touch with him for the film, he was very happy. The film got him back into the limelight. Later, of course, Farhaan Akhtar in the film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, gave him a whole new status and recognition.
I remember while shooting for Freedom Run, Milkha Singh was absolutely effortless. That surprised me. We flew him from Chandigarh to Delhi to shoot at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. Singh was very much at home there. He picked up the torch. He must be running in Chandigarh, too. He warmed up a bit and then was all there. He was fit as he was until his death.
In the film, you can see how he runs. Almost gazelle-like. He seemed to be flying when he would run. So we shot him in full length and in extreme slow motion. In one shot, both his legs are off the ground and he lands on his feet in the next stride. They were such long strides, too. I remember that very clearly.
Those were the early days of seeing good stuff on television and the youngsters who saw the film enjoyed it. They would recognize Milkha Singh on the road and he would tell me about it whenever we met. I met him quite often.
Milkha Singh was a very humble person. But I am glad we were able to have him in the film, as the younger generation then got to see the legend that he was.