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Milkha Singh (second from right), competing in the heats at the 1960 Rome Olympics

Milkha Singh (second from right), competing in the heats at the 1960 Rome Olympics

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s latest offering Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has been making all the right noises in all the right circles. The movie has received almost universal adulation for the emotional cord it strikes with the viewers through its depiction of Milkha Singh’s inspiring life. One of the most celebrated athletes in Indian sporting history deserved to have his story broadcast loud and clear, and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag does that admirably.

But did the makers go overboard in trying to paint a larger-than-life picture of the celebrated runner? Alas, the answer to that seems to be ‘yes’.

A sequence in the film shows Milkha asking the national coach after his 1956 Olympics debacle what the world record in 400 metres was. The coach, in typical filmy style, doesn’t utter a word but writes the words ’45.9′ on a piece of paper and hands it over to Milkha. That number supposedly becomes the Holy Grail for Milkha, and the audience is led to believe that he took a silent oath to better that mark.

The movie later shows Milkha recording a time of 45.8 seconds in one of his practice runs before the 1960 Olympics, thus unofficially ‘breaking’ the world record. The feat is celebrated with song and dance in Milkha’s camp, and the scene even culminates with Milkha dramatically flinging the piece of paper into the fire.

Hold on just a second, though. Was 45.9 really the world record that should have demanded Milkha’s undivided attention? As can be seen here and here, the last time 45.9 seconds was the world record in men’s 400m running was back in 1948. At that time, Milkha was nowhere in contention for competing in, let alone winning, Olympic races.

As per IAAF’s statistics, the record of 45.9 seconds originally set by Herb McKenley was broken by George Rhoden in 1950, who registered a time of 45.8 seconds. This record was then bettered by Lou Jones in 1955 with a time of 45.4 seconds, and Jones further shaved some time off his own record by setting a time of 45.2 seconds in 1956.

Thus, when the movie shows Milkha’s coach informing him of the world record time in 1956, it is actually wrong about the record by a full 0.7 seconds! For the uninitiated, that’s like a millennium in running terms.

A sequence towards the end of the movie purports to show Milkha registering a time of 45.8 seconds in 1960 to unofficially break the 400m world record. In fact, though, the ‘record’ in question was a 12-year-old, already-eclipsed time that didn’t have any relevance at that moment in history. Which makes you wonder what the whole fuss surrounding the magical 45.9 mark was about in the first place.

The goof has been duly noted in IMDb’s bloopers section (which can be seen here), but it has gone largely unnoticed in the media. So what’s the big deal, you ask? This is Bollywood, after all, which has a notorious propensity to play around with facts and statistics like they are weapons of mass fantasy.

But Bhaag Milkha Bhaag isn’t supposed to be just any run-of-the-mill Bollywood melodrama. It had been publicized as an authentic biopic that showcased the glorious achievements of a celebrated athlete in minute detail, and the least that can be expected from such a venture is for the people at the helm to get their basic facts right.

Milkha Singh was a great athlete, but contrary to what the movie implies, he never held the 400m world record, whether officially or unofficially.

The makers of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag have undoubtedly done a great job by bringing Milkha Singh’s heroics into the limelight. Too bad they couldn’t go the whole hog and make a movie that was factually accurate about his career accomplishments.