At 30, Milind Soman appeared shirtless in Alisha Chinai’s hit song Made In India, and became the emperor of sexual awakening for millions of Indian women.
At 50, he swam 3.8 km, biked another 180 km and ran 42.2 kilometres non-stop, to complete the world’s most gruelling triathlon in 15 hours to become the ‘Ironman‘.
Supermodel, actor, film producer, fitness entrepreneur, and most recently an author (he just released his memoir Made in India, co-written by author Roopa Rai), the world identifies Soman by many names, but according to Soman, the only thing he has ever been chasing is his own curiosity.
Soman loves to talk about everything from faith to philosophy – something that makes him an interviewer’s delight. Perhaps, the thing that fascinates him most is ‘struggle’.
“I think all of us need something to struggle in something that gives us joy. For me, running is that activity”, he said.
He is, however, not one to fall for fitness fads, health trends or for that matter, even going to the gym. He hates athletic shoes, runs barefoot and believes it’s more important to listen to your body than blindly trusting someone else’s advice for it.
“I have never gone to a gym, so I know that you don’t need to go to a gym to be fit. I think the issue is that these days that people want quick results. When you don’t respect your own body, and what it says, and trust others, then you pay to rely on someone else’s experience,” he says.
Over an hour-long conversation, Milind Soman spoke to us about the changing face of fashion, the commercialisation of fitness, why women hold the key to India’s future and why he believes protesting is a citizen’s right in a democracy.
Q: It has been 25 years since the song Made in India was released. What’s the difference between that Milind Soman and the one today?
A: I can definitely run better! (laughs). On a serious note, I don’t know if there is much difference. Even twenty-five years ago, I chose to do the things I was really interested in, and I do the same today – whether it relates to my fitness or my commitments. So, no, not much much has changed. My friends used to complain about how laidback I was 25 years ago, and they still do the same today. (laughs again)
Q: The fashion world in India has drastically changed in the last 25 years. What do you make of it? How has this heightened attention to self-image influenced you?
A: The world of fashion and modelling was very different 30 years ago. It was very small, very nascent. There were hardly 20 models who did most shows, there were no fashion weeks, couture weeks, winter and fall collections. Today, there are thirty thousand models. The competition is much more, because there are plenty of models. But today, everyone looks the same. I think what people don’t realise today is that it’s not just about looking good. You have to be different to stand out.
A lot of people tell me I am genetically gifted, and I don’t disagree, but I believe what really takes you ahead is your personality and interests. It is what attracts people.
If you look at most celebrities in Hollywood – they are not conventionally good looking. A good place to start from is self-belief, the desire to prove something. Through the course of my career, I have seen many talented people, but nothing drove them. Talent is just 5%, 95% is hard work, and most importantly drive.
Q: Are you spiritual?
A: I am logical, rational.
Q: Are you religious?
A: I am not religious, but I find religion fascinating. I love the fact that people have faith. Faith is really a beautiful and powerful thing. It is also a great driving force.
Q: You are an avid runner. What draws you to running as an activity?
A: When you run, it helps you struggle in something that gives you joy. And I think it’s important to have this struggle, and for each one of us to have an activity that enables us to do it. To struggle in something worthwhile is rewarding. Now, I know that I am privileged, I have enough, I can’t complain. But I still need to struggle, to contribute, to be better. I can’t live a good life without it. Running is my activity of choice.
Q: You run barefoot. Any particular reason for it?
A: When you run barefoot, it affects the way you run. And there is a reason for it – our hands and feet are very sensitive. I mean think about it – your fingertips move away at the touch of something hot. Similarly, your feet tell the body how to respond to the environment around it. There is a term for it – proprioception, and it’s almost like having second sight. When you wear shoes, this sight gets blocked out. When your body is aware of its surroundings, it understands how to run better.
I started running barefoot gradually, starting with half-a-kilometre and then increasing it further. As I increased distances, my running became more and more effortless. I have been running barefoot for 9 years now.
Q: The last decade has seen commercialisation of fitness. What do you make of this trend?
A: Yes, fitness has definitely been commercialised. I have never gone to a gym, so I know that you don’t need to go to a gym to be fit. I think the issue is that these days that people want results, and they want them quickly. Whereas when it comes to matters of health, it is very important to learn from your own experiences.
When you don’t respect your own body, and what it says, and trust others instead to make those decisions, then you pay to rely on someone else’s experience. So, I think it boils down to two things. One, respect for your own body and its needs. And second, patience. When you don’t have two, businesses take advantage, and you end up paying, for what should ideally be free.
When it comes to fitness, people chase levels. The thing to chase is experience— of understanding your own body. I don’t see the value of chasing fitness levels.
Q: You spoke about faith earlier, and I want to bring you back to it. When it comes to running long distances, or doing something like The Ironman, how much of what you do is physical, and how much of it goes beyond it?
A: Well, running is not just mental, it’s beyond thought, in the sense that running is elemental to us. Running is something that’s very natural to humans. It is, in fact, linked to our survival. It is something that we are meant to do, and that is why runners talk about being happiest while running. Human beings are also the best runners on the planet. Sure, speed-wise, we are not that great, but when it comes to persistence hunting, we have no comparison. That’s why I said running is something that’s even beyond thought. It is limitless.
Q: You started Pinkathon to get more women to start running. What drew you to the idea and what do you think stops Indian women from running?
A: I had been participating in these running events and marathons for 7-8 years, and realised that in most of these events, most of the participants were men. Women barely made up 4 to 5% of the participants. And there are two reasons for it, I think. First, it is assumed that sports and exercise are only for men. We generally don’t take women’s health too seriously, as a society. And second, at these largely predominantly male-centred events, families have a reservation – is my mother, wife, daughter going to be safe? Women also wonder whether they will be ridiculed or laughed at.
And so, we started with Pinkathon in 2012, because there was no other space in the country where women could just get together. It started out with running, but over the course of time, it has become a place where women come together to celebrate themselves.
And it’s important, because I think, in our society women are encouraged to neglect themselves. And this obviously goes down to thousands and thousands of years of conditioning. The women’s role is that of the carer, and it is what the society has internalised. It’s what encourages this behaviour. But, of course, it has to change.
Q: The script of your entire life is about playing by your own rules. This is true for everything else, but especially for love. Many Indians, however, are still afraid to love, or forced to follow the dictates society sets for them. What would you say to them?
A: I think it has been easier for me, because I am obviously more privileged. And it may be more difficult for others. But, I believe in fighting for what is right. Without violence, of course. Don’t give up on the fight, the struggle. If it’s worth pursuing, fight the good fight.
Q: Over the course of the last few months, India has seen violence erupt on its campuses. What do you make of that?
A: I think that if the government wants to do something, and it’s in the interest of people, it’s fine, but it should hear those who are protesting. In a democracy, it is a citizen’s right to protest. The only thing that is not acceptable is violence. But, if people want to protest, they should be allowed to. People must come out and talk about what they feel. Democracy allows that.
Q: From Shaheen Bagh to other areas, women have become the torch-bearers of protest culture in India. What do you make of that?.
A: I believe women understand the value of things more. Men are mostly about power, competition and violence. Mostly. Women consolidate and understand. They understand the value of building, of making something that builds a better society.
Note: The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.