I take my seat as he answers a phone call. An authoritative 'hello' puts me on my guard. This isn't going to be an easy interview; I assure and then reassure myself. "It was a call from the Tihar Jail superintendent," Milkha Singh, The Milkha Singh, catches me fidgeting my cell phone. "I told him, when I went to jail, God knows where he would have been," he laughs, and I join in - with the Bhaag Milkha Bhaag movie clips playing in my mind.
The giggle eased my nerves as I slipped deep into the sofa and turned the recorder on. "Yes, tell me," he started, before I could. "Congratulations, for the movie and now this book The Race of My life," I said.
He thanked and waited for me to go ahead. I did, and it turned out to be the most memorable 30 minutes.
A celebrated athlete, a movie and now an autobiography. How does it feel?
MS: I could never imagine that a feature film will be ever made on my life story. Around 35 years back, a book was published in Punjabi about my history. Somebody in Bollywood read that book, some directors maybe. It had my entire story, what happened in Pakistan, how I came to India. After reading that book, Bollywood approached me. But in The Race of My Life, you will find a lot more than you have seen in the movie.
Tell us how the idea of 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag' came to life, especially after so many years since you retired.
MS: The go-ahead for the movie was given by my son, Jeev Milkha Singh. Some directors came to my residence in Chandigarh. Incidentally, Jeev was also at home. Three-four directors had come from Mumbai. They said, "We have read your story and want to make a film on it." They were ready to offer me anywhere from Rs. 50 lakh to 1.5 crore. My son took me to another room to have a word. He said, "Papa, I have seen Rang De Basanti. I have complete faith in Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra. So this was Jeev's decision (to say 'yes' to Mehra). After that, all the agreement, paper work, etc., was done.
But the movie was about Milkha Singh, so it had to be your decision as well.
MS: I had two conditions: One, the film should be such that it becomes an inspiration for the coming generation, that how Milkha Singh became the Milkha Singh they know, what hardships he went through. Two, if the film makes profit, 10 to 15 percent of that should go to the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust.
Will there be more about Milkha Singh in the autobiography?
MS: A lot more than you have seen in the movie. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has only 10 percent of Milkha Singh's life. If the movie had to show my life history from start to now, then it wouldn't finish in even 15 hours. In three hours, they showed what they could. You can say that the book is the English version of the Punjabi book I told you about, but with a lot of addition to it. What happened in the period between the release of the Punjabi version 35 years ago and now has been included in this book.
The movie is doing so well, but are you happy with the end product?
MS: I am glad they did such a remarkable job, which is in front of you now. The director, producer and scriptwriter Prasoon Joshi have all done well. Eighty percent of what you see in the movie is true, and the rest they had to do to make it commercially viable.
Your autobiography 'The Race of My Life' is going to be released soon after the film did. Was that planned?
MS: You should ask the publishers about this. They wanted the book to come soon after the film, although it was ready before that.
At 83, people retire, but you are kind of reborn.
MS: These things are inspiring me, may be because of this I will live for 10 more years. People didn't know what hardships Milkha Singh had gone through. Very few people have the courage to show it to the people. And I am glad that a film on my life has been made when I am still alive.
Watch out for Part II of this interview where Milkha Singh talks about his past, sports in India and what will it take to produce another Milkha Singh.