Canadian university stars play extras in a biopic about an Indian sprinter from the 1960s
When my roommate, Trent Sayers, first knocked on my bedroom door back at the end of February to tell me he had received an email asking him to come to India and play the role of an extra in a Bollywood film, my first thoughts were immediately of some elaborate Internet scheme. One month later, however, I was on a plane from Toronto to New Delhi.
Peter Pimm, a coach with the Greater Toronto Track Club, was helping ReelSports with the recruitment for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a biopic about Milkha Singh, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Singh was a 400m runner for India and competed at the Olympics in 1956, 1960 and 1964.
Mostly joking, I had told Trent to tell Pimm that if he needed another extra, I could most certainly use a trip to India. The whole situation still sounded surreal, but soon we had our employment visas, printed boldly across them "To act in feature film, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag." Trent and I, along with nine other Canadian athletes, were off to India for a few weeks in April to be in the movie.
"ReelSports asked me to recruit runners who looked like 200m to 400m sprinters and who were capable of [running] around 50-ish seconds for 400m," says Pimm. "Knowing the demands of filmmaking, I wanted, shall we say, solid, disciplined and somewhat accomplished athletes." ReelSports also worked on the major film Miracle, about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team and Four Minutes, a made-for-TV film about Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute barrier. Pimm helped with the casting on Four Minutes as well. "My job was to recruit athletes, and assist in choreographing the running action scenes as well as to ensure the props and staging looked technically legitimate," says Pimm.
Hired as special ability extras, our job as athletes was to run alongside Bollywood star Farhan Akhtar - the actor playing Singh - in the races. Flights, accommodation and food were covered by the production company and they gave us a small stipend for each day we spent on set.
Production staff told us that the work would be tough and the days would be long. Filming generally consisted of shooting the races in small segments between 10m to 150m, and often required many takes before the directors were happy with one. This, combined with days on set lasting from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., and daily temperatures rivalling the hottest weeks of summer back in Toronto, made for exhausting shoots.
Most of the minor problems stemmed from disconnects between the director's creative vision and what we needed to allow us to do our job correctly. The demands often would involve sitting around for hours and then suddenly being expected to sprint at close to maximum efforts with no warm-up, or misunderstandings by the production team such as why starting blocks needed to be secured to the track to be used correctly.