Are biopics still the flavour of the day, or are they ‘so yesterday’ as the new catchword goes? Always a popular genre, perhaps because it feeds the public’s insatiable appetite and taste for gossip and insights into the lives of the famous, and infamous. In recent years a proliferation of movies based on the lives of well-known people have been released. Slick productions that have won deserving accolades, as well as honours and awards for the actors, these movies have grossed millions in box office revenues. We have seen the excellent Meryl Streep win an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in, ‘The Iron Lady’; Helen Mirren, no less an accomplished actress, won the academy award as Elizabeth II; Jamie Foxx for his portrayal of Charles Ray in ‘Ray’; Reese Witherspoon triumphed as June Carter in ‘Walk The Line’; Philip Seymour Hoffman bagged the academy award as the eponymous ‘Capote’: Leonardo DiCaprio was, unfortunately, pipped to the Oscar post in his haunting portrayal of the brilliantly eccentric Howard Hughes. The list is endless. Closer to home we have had Farhan Akhtar win commendations for his depiction of Milkha Singh in, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’. And that leads me to my question of how authentic bio-pics are: are they scrupulously researched and kept within the parameters of whatever truths are known about the subject, or are the stories facts loosely fabricated with fiction?
Regarding our own depiction of Milkha Singh, one scene in the movie, which I must first admit, not being a Bollywood buff I haven’t seen, troubles me. I would not have known about it had it not been mentioned in my presence en passant, and inadvertently. While hosting friends for lunch at our home up in the mountains a couple of summers ago, one of the guests happened to be a lady who was part of the production team working on the movie. Apparently they had just shot the scene of Milkha Singh’s historic run in Lahore, and the lady was excited, and gave us a spontaneous and vivid description of the shot which drew my attention because of the lack of authenticity in it.
Milkha Singh went to Lahore, as part of the Indian Athletic Team to participate in the Indo-Pak Athletic Meet in the early 1960’s, organised to try and melt some of the frost in Indo-Pak political relations which, at that time, were very much on edge. This lady described the scene of the race as being one in which the camera focuses on burqa-clad ladies watching the Flying Sikh speed across the track. WRONG. I know, because I was there. I did try and clarify this for her, but the scene had already been filmed, and anyway, who cares for authenticity?!
At the time of the said Athletic Meet, I was a student at the prestigious University of Punjab, Lahore. Years later,at interviews for teaching positions in my country-by-marriage, in order to elicit some sort of gleam of recognition for this once-famed seat of learning, I needed to emphasise that erudite established living scholars like Kuldip Nayar, Khushwant Singh, I.K. Gujral and other such Indian luminaries who were alumni of the University.
However,back to ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ . The Pakistan of my childhood and youth, the homeland where I grew up was,at that time, no different in its social ambience than contemporary India. Crossing the border in the early 1960’s to visit the elite family who were, years later, happily, to become my in-laws, I felt quite at home in Delhi. In Lahore, and my hometown of Rawalpindi, we were as the youth of Delhi were,studying in coeducational institutions, mixing freely in an open society where ‘good friendships’ between boys and girls was the norm. Together, we went to the movies, visited restaurants in groups, sharing ideas, opinions, debating, arguing and above all relishing each other’s company, and having fun. I cannot think of a single girl among our group who married any of the young boys who were our genuine and sincere friends. Shalwar kameez, trousers, jeans and sometimes dresses were the norm for girls, with saris often worn, by choice, for social occasions.
The Indo-Pak Athletic Meet aroused huge interest and excitement, because the Indians would be here in Lahore, but largely because of the expected presence of Sardar Milkha Singh. Most all of us had never seen a Sikh gentleman before! Until the last minute it wasn’t certain whether he would attend or not, considering the prickly atmosphere between the two neighbouring countries. The Meet was organized at the Lahore Stadium which, decades later, because of the petro-dollars being poured into the country,President Zia-ul-Haq expeditiously named ‘Gaddafi Stadium’ ( have they changed the name again after the ignominious disposal of the Libyan dictator?). Excitement was at a peak. We left our campus early to ensure the best ringside view. Not a burqa in sight. The girls and boys were clad in normal gear, all fresh-faced, eager and enthusiastic. When Sardarji came out on the field, a cheer of warmth and affection went up which, I’m certain, must still echo in his heart. He ran, he flew, he won, and then he was mobbed, by all of us: for autographs; to get a closer look at this giant in Asian athletics; to be in close proximity to a sikh because it was the first, and probably the only, opportunity! And as the gracious gentleman patiently took us all on, pleasant, courteous, smilingly signing his name,diplomatically laughing away the intrusive, and sometimes impertinent, questions we directed at him, we gasped: ‘Gosh, he can speak English’! The Flying Sikh won more than a race that day. He won over the youth of Pakistan. It is disappointing to realize that Milkha Singh did not ensure that this scene was depicted in its authenticity. But perhaps, he has run so many races, in so many countries, in conditions far more exciting and important than the Lahore Meet, that a clear memory of what was for us an unforgettable occasion, has faded from his mind. Or did the producers not tell him how they were presenting this?
The Pakistan I grew up in was firmly in the grip of the Military. President Ayub Khan was at the helm, supported by his coterie of henchmen. While the poor scrabbled for food, and the middle class struggled to survive, the President’s youngest indulged son ,Tahir, shot around Rawalpindi in an Aston-Martin DB 6, the same car that James Bond flashed around in. ‘Pindi roads being narrow, bumpy and certainly not suited to a snazzy sports car, the joke was that Ayub Khan had the Islamabad Highway built to accommodate his son’s expensive little toy!
Rawalpindi was still the neat, charming Army Cantonment town the British had built, with brick bungalows lining leafy streets, parks, lovely gardens, and the marble statue of Queen Victoria dominating the Mall. A salubrious, safe environment that one was so fortunate to live in. On a recent visit, it was devastating to see how it has now become the backwater for Islamabad, and changed character completely. Indeed, the entire country has changed character. History marches on. The heart aches; but change is inevitable, so one accepts, but with sorrow. The Pakistan I read about in news items is a country alien to me; a place I cannot recognize any more. It helps with the nostalgia! But I balk and bristle when the past truth is depicted in the colours of the present reality.
There were no burqas at the Indo-Pakistan Athletic Meet in Lahore when Milkha Singh ran that memorable race.