Though Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag starring Farhan Akhtar and Sonam Kapoor, released almost three weeks ago, it’s still going strong at the box office. As Farhan jokes ‘it’s got long legs’. The actor-director-write-producer is enjoying the accolades for his performance in BMB at present.
Few knew that the urbane, intellectual Farhan could play a man from rural Punjab so convincingly. Few also know that the serious and often intense Farhan possesses a dry sense of humour that often catches you by surprise. A chat with the man, who played Milkha Singh, at his sprawling bungalow in Bandra:
What is the best compliment you have got for the film?
Many people from friends to family and peers and seniors from the film industry have all said wonderful things and each one of them is as important as the other. From Milkhaji’s family to Milkhaji himself — so many people have said special things that it’s not fair to say one person’s compliment is better than the others. I feel that this kind of cross-border acceptance of the film and the appreciation for the performance is very satisfying and makes me feel really thankful.
I feel the kind of acceptance that we have got for the film is very special.
The story has resonated with every person watching it. It’s what we had hoped for. I remember even before the film released, Rakeysh, Prasoon, Sonam and I would always say that if it can inspire and move the audience in the way that we were moved when we first heard it, that would be the magic of the script. And the magic has happened on a very major level.
Finally, you have a 100-crore film. Do you feel on top-of-the-world?
Honestly what was happening with this film, even leading up to this kind of magical numbers, is something we never thought of. How can you aim for such numbers when you are making a film? You can really hope that your film does as well as it can possibly do. Numbers are eventually the product of the attention that your film is getting, so of course, it’s nice.
At the end of the day it means that many more people have gone and seen your film and within those numbers many people have seen it more than once that indicates that people have connected to it beyond just a one-time viewing. If you break down the 100 crore figure as some carrot dangling before everyone’s nose then it may or not work...
You don’t take the 100-crore benchmark seriously?
It feels great when it happens, but I don’t think you set out to say that I am going to do that! It’s very difficult to say what will do well and what won’t. Films that cross a certain threshold at the box office may not get the kind of respect a filmmaker would want.
Sometimes the filmmaker gets a lot of respect, but the film doesn’t cross that number so then there are different kinds of success. The box office can’t be the measure of success that applies to a work of art. Many people are watching something that you have worked very hard on. I feel very grateful for it. But the most important thing when something like this happens, is the enabling factor for you to get a lot more confidence to try out different things.
There are people around you who get confident and say, ‘let’s give him something more.’ And more than the number, it’s the out-of-comfort zone character that gives one the confidence to break the mould and do different stuff.
Did you ever feel that it could be a tough role to pull off?
Some people felt I couldn’t pull off such a difficult character. I remember when we announced the project, there were some hushed tones saying, ‘Arre yaar yeh Punjabi character hai Farhan is an urban boy so how will he play such a role?’
It’s nice when you shatter that myth that I can play such a difficult character. When that myth is broken in people’s heads suddenly you are available as an option for something that is outside a city-based film so obviously the kind of work you get will increase. And that’s actually the most fantastic part.
Did it ever bother you that people till now had never offered you out-of-the-box roles?
No. I think you do films or scripts that excite you. There’s an instinct that works for every single person who’s in this field of what you feel is the right film to do or make and I have followed that instinct.
BMB connected with me on such an emotional and human level that it just felt like the right film to do. Honestly till I would hear the whispers of ‘yeh kaise karega’ type of vibes you don’t even think about it. But when suddenly people change their opinion and realise that it’s possible to do more stuff with this actor. But it was not just me but also Rakeysh, Binod, many people like hair, makeup, wardrobe, my training team working on it together so it’s really an amalgamation of everyone’s effort that you are seeing but shattering the myth was the bigger success as a performer.
I have got a lot from the film but the most important is the understanding of how amazing the possibilities in movies are of doing and creating things. If you apply yourself and go out totally there and do something that may even surprises you! That’s the big learning.
Will direction now take a back seat?
Yes, for the moment direction will take a backseat. I must admit that I am really enjoying acting. And I feel it’s happened because those’re the kind of scripts that start coming your way when people start believing in you. Suddenly you start getting scripts that are more exciting than what you were getting a year-and-a-half ago.
There’s lots of exciting and challenging stuff coming my way right now in terms of roles —stuff on a very different level that I have not done and exciting people that I would love to work with. There seems to be some positive movement and my excitement level is up and I am feeling, ‘Wow! I would like to do this I think I will continue down this path.’ When I feel I am not getting inspired by something I want to act in I will quickly direct my next film.
Were you aware that BMB was offered to Abhishek, Ranveer and SRK before you?
Yes, but it never mattered to me. If it did I would have had issues before. Every film goes through a process. We have also produced and directed films and we have also gone to actors who said no and we have gone to someone else. It’s a part of the process and you can’t stop to think about it.
Not every actor gets a film he can be proud of for the rest of his career. Feel lucky?
Yes, absolutely. I felt lucky when Rakeysh narrated the script to me. It didn’t take me a second to say yes even before he had finished narrating the script to me. It had me hooked from the time it started to when it ended.
What was the hook that drew you?
When Rakeysh first told me about his childhood and what had happened with Milkhaji the concept of having him to face up to that go back and then get this title in the land he had to run away from, I found that circle so amazing...
All of us within our respective fields want to be accepted by the people who don’t believe in us. We want them to turn around at some point and say, ‘yaar I was wrong about you.’ You want to win them over through your work. This film is a kind of metaphor for that — a guy who had to leave his home because he was not wanted anymore and then he was celebrated as a hero. This drive for an identity — Who am I? When I am homeless, have no family and am orphan I have to create an identity for myself and within that creating an identity I want those people who had rejected me to accept me now. I found that so human...
Yes. All of us have that within us. Somewhere there is a certain need that human beings have to be accepted. Why do we want our audiences to grow? Why is it that we want our soaps to reach as much audience in villages and towns as possible? Because the more people that like and accept what you do somehow it gives you strength and justifies your belief in what you are doing and gives you your sense of identity, not to exploit but to keep building on. It’s a human need and there’s lots more lessons in the film through the sport but for me the big connect was a kid wanting to be accepted by the people who rejected him.
Which scene was your toughest emotionally?
There were two scenes like that. The scene where he has to go back to his village and face his childhood memories — that was an emotionally devastating scene for me. It’s difficult to break down but the fact is you are trying to put yourself into the shoes of someone who has witnessed something that is so unimaginable to you. To witness the massacre of your parents and your family in front of your eyes is something that is unimaginable! No matter how hard you try I don’t know if you will succeed. You may come close with as much visual memory you can draw on. You just draw on your own reserves.
The other hard-core scene was the inflicting of punishment on himself which he does after losing the Melbourne race and the turning point. Again in that, it was how much is enough was the big question. Rakeysh and I discussed it and decided we would decide ourselves according to the scene because who knows how many times Milkhaji slapped himself? Even he may not remember the number.
You have to find something that you are really upset with yourself about and try to get that out. You have to draw on your reserves and then you marry that somewhere in your head with moments of feeling like this.
Is Farhan, the director jealous of Farhan, the actor for being part of this film?
No. Honestly the inspiration has come from Rakeysh. He had a personal connection to the the legend of Milkha. Being from Delhi, he was in sports. So he was the right person to have directed the film. At no point did I feel I could have directed BMB.
In BMB you act, look and talk like Milkha. Was it difficult for you to not be him off-screen?
What was most consistent through the year-and-a-half was the lifestyle. My trainers, Rakeysh and I had categorically decided is that I just wanted to live the life of an athlete. You just cut out all excesses from your life completely. You don’t go out and party as you have to be in bed by 10 pm and be up by 5 am. Your diet is in a certain way.
You cannot miss your training any day no matter how sick or tired you are feeling. That kind of discipline puts you in a very focussed zone. Like for an athelete, the focus was about the race the character had to run. To stay true to that was important.
Late nights, socialising hanging out with everyone and then pretending to be an athelete, could not happen. After wrapping the shoot I would go for a training session and then eat and go straight to bed.
During the entire shoot post wrap the only time I hung out with Rakeysh and the gang was when we finsihed shooting on the last day of shoot. Initially it was tough but I never felt like giving up. The sheer enjoyment of playing that part never made me feel that that I was doing anything that difficult.
You are the only director who is also now a very successful and respected actor... does that make things easier or difficult?
I hope it makes it easier for me after all this... (laughs). You don’t want the burdens of expectations on yourself. I don’t take myself so seriously.
Three actors who could’ve played Milkha?
On that level there will be many... but if you watch the film it’s so amazing because of who has done it also. It becomes that nobody could have done it better. So it’s very difficult for me to think of anyone. I think every film is made with the right cast. It’s amazing how memorable films end up having the right cast. All films have a past. It just comes to the person who it is meant to be for.
Success makes people arrogant but you seem grounded.
This would have to do, I would assume, with reading other people’s lives. It plays such a huge part when you read books about people who have had a long career.
Every career has its share of ups and downs and people go through harder times when their films are not doing well. When that one film comes along which suddenly picks them up... how do you deal with all of this? If your opinion of yourself is going to be based on what other people think of you, then you are get screwed. It has to be on what you think of your work and what you think you are capable of doing. That is crucial.