The legacy of the Flying Sikh in sport and pop culture –
Late Friday night, India suffered the great loss of its very first famous athlete – track and field champion Milkha Singh, to Covid-19 at age 91. The news came after Singh’s month-long fight and days after his wife, Nirmal Kaur, succumbed to the virus.
India celebrates Milkha Singh as one of the country’s greatest athletes. Surviving the trauma and bloodshed of the score, the indomitable young Sikh did not give up hope after the tragedy. Once a petty thief, Singh was later recruited into the Indian Army – after three tries the fourth was a charm – where he was introduced to athletics and sprinting. Some might say he was the personification of the old journey of parental guilt – he used to go through a real 10km long obstacle course, almost like a triathlon with patches of sand and built-in channels. . Almost as if running was the one thing Singh knew better than anything, he trained for hours, always barefoot, during his assignments.
In 1958, Singh won the 400m race at the Asian Games in Tokyo. He was named ‘Best Athlete’, becoming the first Indian athlete to win gold in any sport at the 1959 Commonwealth Games. He became a beacon of opportunity for Indian athletes. In 1960, he broke the record for the fastest 400m in 45.8 seconds in a preliminary Olympic event, but luckily he placed fourth in the final race. Its story does not begin until there; it would be said over and over again for years to come.
Milkha Singh has also had an influential effect on the country’s pop culture discourse. Some only knew him as the butt of jokes because of his straightforward history (“Excuse me sir, are you relaxing?” “No, I’m Milkha Singh”). On the other hand, some have recognized his popularity through his 2013 biopic, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Published in 2013 and written by Singh and his daughter, Sonia Sanwalka, his autobiography titled The race of my life was released in 2013. Its story contained the right amount of tragedy, drama, thrill, fantasy and heroism to be picked up by filmmaker Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra who knocked out Farhan Akhtar as Singh.
Interestingly, “Bhaag, Milkha, Bhaag” were the last words of Singh’s dying father asking him to flee communal violence on the border of undivided India. These words are now a resounding reminder of the legacy of the Flying Sikh. The film is one of India’s most critically acclaimed sports films and was titled “Wholesome Entertainment” at the National Film Awards. The film went on to win five other accolades at the International Indian Film Academy Awards.
Singh’s immense popularity has been etched into the daily life of ordinary people. For young Indians today, “run like Milkha Singh” has been an idiom commonly added to everyday conversation since time immemorial.
Singh’s long-standing fun with Madame Tussaud and his longing for his own wax statue came true in September 2017 when his iconic 1958 race victorious pose was recreated and on display at the Wax Museum in New Delhi. It was not only a milestone for Singh, but also for his legacy as his wax double shares the stage with Indian revolutionaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh and prominent figures of today like the legendary drummer. Sachin Tendulkar.
During and after the realization of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Singh’s contribution to history made him Bollywood’s favorite uncle. Although Singh admitted that he hadn’t watched a single movie since 1968 and had rejected all movie ideas since, his son Jeev Milkha Singh, a professional golfer, convinced him to tell his story to Mehra. Its impact on the Indian film industry left everyone in awe.
People across the country and abroad sent their condolences on Singh’s passing. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to track and field runner PT Usha to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag crew, Twitter messages continue to flow in remembrance of the iconic athlete. He forever changed athletics in India and brought the country international recognition in its infancy. Singh inspired older Indians, but his legacy remains for the younger generations through his accomplishments and impact on the country’s pop culture.