The auditions for the selection of a young boy who gets to play Milkha Singh in his tweens in the upcoming film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, had two requirements: The actor had to be an 11 or 12-year-old Sikh boy. From amongst over 6,000 shortlisted candidates, it was Japtej Singh, 12, a resident of SAS Nagar, who bagged the honours.
A student of Yadavindra Public School in SAS Nagar, Japtej’s first encounter with the camera was for this year’s Punjabi film, Lucky Di Unlucky Story. “It was a cameo, where I played the son of actor Jaswinder Bhalla. I was named Japu in the film, which is my real life nick name too,” he giggles. However, it is the July 12 release— Bhaag Milkha Bhaag — that Japtej is excited about. “The film’s auditions took place in November 2011 in Chandigarh and later in Delhi and I had to perform a self-created skit. The filmmakers didn’t want a clean shaven boy who would have to be turned into a Sikh,” says Japtej.
To train for his role, Japtej says he was asked by director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra to not act. “He just told me to be natural and to be myself,” says the youngster, adding that he underwent physical training comprising two months of running and a month of swimming. “My athletics coach Jasvir Singh helped me increase my stamina for the 400m, 100m and 200m sprint events. And, the most important thing taught to me at the Sports Complex, Sector 7, Chandigarh was to perform the same stepping as Milkha ji used to. In fact, there is a scene in the film where Farhan and I (in flashback) are in the same frame,” recounts Japtej, who loves to play hockey in school.
Since there are numerous allusions to Milkha’s childhood, Japtej has a meaty role in the film. “From the first scene till the last, whenever Farhan [who plays Milkha Singh in the film] would recall his childhood, I would be shown. I have almost 40-45 minutes of screen presence, which is a big thing for me,” says an excited Japtej, who adds that he also got the chance to meet Milkha at his residence. “Milkha ji shared his childhood memories with me. The best compliment that I have received so far is from the athlete, who said: “Yaar, mai tere varga hi si” (I was just like you),” smiles Japtej.
There are other experiences from the film’s shooting that Japtej recalls fondly. “Farhan and I used to have long discussions and he would ask me geography-based questions. Though I used to check for answers online and revert, he would win,” smiles the young actor. Japtej says he was pampered by everyone, including actor Divya Dutta [who plays Milkha’s real sister in the film], Rakeysh and his wife Bharti. “They treated me like their own child,” he smiles.
Though ecstatic with his Bollywood debut, Japtej doesn’t forget the director’s advice. “Rakeysh ji said that I should first complete my studies and then enter the world of acting,” the young Milkha says seriously.