You must have heard the phrase, The show must go on many times. Illustrating this is a heart-tugging story that happened with filmmaker Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra when he was making Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (July 2013). This was the film where Farhan Akhtar played Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh, India’s legendary track and field sprinter.
Rakeysh Mehra’s story begins in the early 80s when he was still a student at Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi and he made his first trekking trip to Ladakh. Ladakh in the 80s was still unexplored, a virginal territory with no tourists and only a solitary Indian Airlines flight landing in Leh. Young Rakeysh was smitten, it was love at first sight. When he went back to Delhi, he told his mother, Annapurna Mehra, that Ladakh was the best place on earth.
His opinion remained unchanged even after many years and much success. Rakeysh made ad films, he became a feature filmmaker, he traveled far and wide to Europe, to America, and saw the big wide world. As a filmmaker, he made daringly different fare like Aks with Amitabh Bachchan, Manoj Bajpayee and Raveena Tandon (2001), Rang De Basanti (2006) with Aamir Khan, and Delhi 6 (2009) with Abhishek Bachchan.
Every day there was something new to see and new to learn. However, irrespective of how widely Rakeysh travelled, his first true love remained Ladakh. In fact, with the years, his fascination for the place only grew. And when he got married, he took wife Bharathi to Ladakh of course for their honeymoon. Over the years, his son and daughter also went with him to Ladakh a couple of times.
His mother Annapurna expressed a desire to see the place that so fascinated her son. But the terrain was tough and breathing would have been difficult because one has to be acclimatised to oxygen levels at that height. As his mother aged, taking her to Ladakh remained a wish unfulfilled.
When Rakeysh Mehra was filming Bhaag Milkha Bhaag with Farhan Akhtar in Rewari in Haryana which is about 82 kms from Delhi, his mother fell seriously ill and was in the ICU. Rakeysh would meet her in hospital every evening and leave for Rewari in the morning to shoot the romantic scenes of young Milkha Singh with Sonam Kapoor.
It was almost as if Annapurna Mehra was waiting for her son to wrap up his schedule for she passed away soon after his work in Rewari was completed. As the filmmaker remembered wistfully, ‘Mothers have their own inexplicable ways of operating.’
She’d just passed on when Rakeysh had a shoot planned in his favorite place and the show had to go on. So, after wrapping up shooting in Rewari, he sent his unit to Ladakh while he stayed back for the weekend to perform the last rites. He collected his mother’s ashes on Sunday and left on Monday. Instead of taking his mother’s ashes to someplace like Hardwar, he took the urn with him to Ladakh. This was the shooting schedule where he shot with Farhan Akhtar and Yuvraj Singh’s father Yograj as his coach. They were the famous scenes where Milkha worked out with a tire while he trained for his marathon sprint.
What went on simultaneously with the shoot was that, for seven days, Rakeysh’s morning began with Buddhist monks or lamas from an 800-year old monastery chanting prayers by the Shyok River in Galway Valley. This is the same valley that’s been in the news in 2020 for the incursion by the Chinese. It was in the waters of the Shyok that Rakeysh immersed the ashes of his mother.
Rakeysh Mehra couldn’t take his mother to Ladakh in her lifetime but he did the best act any son could perform when he immersed her ashes in a river in the picturesque, tranquil valley he so adored.
Annapurna Mehra’s blessings were definitely with her son as Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was one of the finest films of 2013. It heralded the era of biopics in Hindi cinema and was one of the biggest hits of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s career.
This is Bharathi Pradhan bringing you ‘Stories Never Told Before’. I’ll soon come to you with another one.