I last met Milkha Singh, The Flying Sikh, about three or four years back. He had joined my book launch in Chandigarh, and stayed on for dinner. I had met him socially a few times earlier too, but that evening we got some undisturbed solus time together. And chatted. About my book. About Chandigarh. About his athletic exploits in his younger days. About his days as a sports administrator. About his retired life. About his famous son, Jeev, the golfer.
But the most interesting part of the conversation that evening was on two subjects: about Salman Khan and about Milkha Singh never really endorsing any product or brand during his prime.
Despite the whole episode being now in the past, Milkha continued to be incensed about Salman Khan having been chosen as a brand ambassador for the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. “India has produced so many sportspersons who have given their sweat and blood for the country like PT Usha, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Ajit Pal and so many others. Even Abhinav Bindra, our own Chandigarh boy. He is an Olympic gold medallist. One of them could have been made a goodwill ambassador. What was the need to import a person from Bollywood?" Milkha said. I could see the pain in his eyes. “The selection of a Bollywood actor over any sportsman shows that we don’t value our sports people. It is showmanship that counts, not sportsmanship. Make believe is what impresses government babus. They must’ve all been dying to get a picture taken with the filmi hero”, he said with much regret.
Which is what led to my next question. “You don’t think brands back in those days appreciated your efforts and exploits? Dhoni and Kohli today have a queue of endorsements. You were much taller as a legend in the 60s. Why didn’t you get any brand assignments?”. He let out a hearty laugh. “I was offered a cycle ad once long back. The payment offered was in barter. They said I could keep the bicycle after the shoot!” he guffawed.
“No, seriously”, I pushed. “You were such a big sporting star … some health brand, some energy booster, some growth supplement … someone must have thought of you as a worthwhile brand ambassador to have”.
“You must understand that celebrity advertising was not very prevalent in those days. Some actresses were sometimes featured in ads for soaps or sarees. Many years after, in the 70s, Faroukh Engineer was in the Brylcreem ad. That made him quite famous. But I really can’t recall anything else. Even the heroes of the day … Dilip Kumar or Raj Kapoor or even Rajesh Khanna I don’t think ever did any ads”.
“But sir, Sunil Gavaskar started coming in Dinesh suitings and Imran Khan was seen in Cinthol. So was Vinod Khanna …?”. “That was in the mid 70s and early 80s. I am talking of the 60s and early 70s”, he corrected me. “Also, sitting out of Chandigarh, I had no contact with the world of advertising. There were no professional agents those days. And somehow it was not considered very good to be seen peddling brands in my time. Nobody did it; so I also never did it. To be honest, having joined the Punjab Govt’s sports department as an employee, the world of advertising never really intersected my life,” he was very candid.
Actually Milkha was right. Celebrity advertising in his heyday didn’t really exist. In fact, it was possibly frowned upon. Plus there was no television those days. By the time Kapil Dev burst onto the scene with ‘Boost is the secret of my energy’ and ‘Palmolive da jawaab nahin’, Milkha was well past his prime. And relevance.
But Milkha still did make his debut in the world of advertising, well into his eighties, in 2013, when Emami signed him on as the brand ambassador for Zandu Kesari Jeevan, a health supplement previously endorsed by Birju Maharaj. The brand found him to be the epitome of good health, youthful vigour & energy - a perfect fit description of Milkha Singh, who even at the age of 84, was a symbol of youthfulness and vigour!
As we parted that evening, I could not but help think that at 87 years of age, Milkha Singh stood ram-rod straight; he did not carry an extra ounce of weight; he looked as athletic as someone 50 years his junior. He had strong opinions and very strong likes and dislikes. He was his own man – wrapped in his fame, but completely unassuming.
That is what real life heroes are – secure in their own achievements without the need for brands to endorse their fame through getting them to endorse them. Milkha was a superstar and perhaps in retrospect no brand was good enough for him! The Flying Sikh … RIP.
Dr. Sandeep Goyal is Managing Director of Rediffusion.