When we sat down to watch this documentary, we had some chips and a tall glass of Coke at the ready, but when it was revealed early on that Budhia Singh — the tiny, former slumdog dweller turned runner — has completed 48 full marathons by the time he was four years old, we promptly wiped the crumbs off our shirt and closed up the bag of salty snacks. And then we promised to hit the gym more often. But even that minor fact is just a small part of the utterly riveting and true tale spun by director Gemma Atwal in “Marathon Boy,” a film that starts off masquerading as your standard uplifting sports movie and then goes in directions you never see coming.
From the outset, the pieces are in place for a heartwarming little number. Budhia, sold by his mother to a passing peddler in the slums of Orissa in India, is rescued by Biranchi Das, who runs a local orphanage and academy that has produced some of the top judo champions in India. But in little Budhia, Biranchi sees in him a different talent that emerges by accident. Punishing him one day for an infraction at the orphanage, Biranchi tells the tiny Budhia to start running laps in a courtyard. He expects that he’ll stop when he tires, but when Biranchi returns hours later, the tiny Budhia is still at it and that’s when a lightbulb goes off. He will train Budhia to become an Olympic long distance runner and soon he has the child running distances that challenge even grown men. As Biranchi notes, he’s never accepted government or private money for his orphanage, pouring all the gains from his various small businesses into the venture and it’s this spirit of salesmanship that emerges. Biranchi is a tireless hustler and promoter, and it’s exactly all this attention Budhia receives that begins a complex web of political and public intrigue.
It’s Biranchi’s decision to let Budhia participate in a 42-mile run (a standard marathon is 26.2 miles), that really tilts the movie on its head. We won’t spoil for you what happens, but soon both the trainer and his young athlete are under the microscope. Yes, watching a child that young run that far in 93°F temperatures isn’t easy — his tired, exhausted face is absolutely haunting — and you aren’t exactly surprised when the local child welfare officials take an almost obsessive interest in the case. But their increasingly aggressive methods to separate Biranchi from Budhia — who he has now legally adopted — point to issues far deeper than actual concern for the well being of the slumdog runner. What Biranchi represents only highlights the failings of the child welfare office, who throughout the film, show a glaring indifference to kids who are still wanting for basic resources in the slums. With his orphanage giving homes to many young slumdog children who would otherwise have no future, it makes the efforts of the government look particularly lacking and Budhia symbolically represents that division. But in all this, is a sad portrait of a child welfare office that believes that the very kids they are supposed to help belong to the station in life in which they have been born.
But the public isn’t far behind in rallying to Biranchi’s cause, and standing behind Budhia’s right to run marathon length races. The story breaks out from Orissa and takes the nation by storm, becoming a hot topic on talk shows, and the overwhelming public sentiment seems to be that while it may be questionable to put Budhia in a position to run marathons, the bottom line is Biranchi is providing food, shelter, clothing and a future to a child that had none of those things. But Biranchi is often his own worst enemy. He’s a relentless showman, almost to the point of proving his critics right that he’s exploiting Budhia, and as Biranchi and the public and political figures duke it out, it’s the runner who is ultimately forgotten. Pit between these three forces and then further manipulated once his mother gets involved, it becomes increasingly difficult to know when it’s Budhia speaking from the heart or being cajoled by the various vested interests in order to help them reach their various ends.
Atwal first heard about the story from the BBC and then went to India to shoot a documentary about Budhia and wound up staying there for five years to capture all the twists and turns of a story that is heartbreaking, shocking and genuinely surprising. We had never heard of the marathon boy prior to this film, and if like us you’re new to the tale as well, the places this story goes will be all the more eye-opening. Atwal’s early access to both Budhia and Biranchi allows her to chronicle the events that take place over the next few years with a remarkable amount of objectivity, as she gets candid interviews with pretty much every important figure who has a stake in the outcome of the child’s fate. The strength of “Marathon Boy” is in Atwal’s decision not to take a position on what unfolds, allowing the morally complex gray zone that takes shape to challenge the viewer to work through their own thoughts on how this story ultimately turns out. Truly fascinating in a way that documentaries rarely are, “Marathon Boy” is a must see. [B+]
“Marathon Boy” premieres on HBO on Thursday, November 3rd at 8 PM.