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Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | “Marathon Boy” Director Gemma Atwal

Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "Marathon Boy" Director Gemma Atwal

Gemma Atwal’s dynamic epic follows four-year-old Budhia, rescued from poverty by Biranchi Das, a larger-than-life judo coach and operator of an orphanage for slum children in the eastern Indian state of Orissa. When Budhia displays an uncommon talent for long-distance running, Biranchi nurtures his gift, heralding him as a folk hero for the impoverished masses, and maybe even for India itself. But after golden child Budhia breaks down during a world-record 65 kilometer run at the age of four, public opinion begins to turn on the guru and his disciple, and soon the two are swept up in a maelstrom of media controversy and political scandal.

Following Budhia’s roller-coaster journey over five years, Marathon Boy is a Dickensian tale of greed, corruption, and broken dreams set between the heart-racing world of marathon running, the poverty-stricken slums, and the political intrigue of a modernizing India. Nothing is what it seems in Budhia and Biranchi’s riveting story, and Atwal continually shifts viewer identification to tell both a shocking story of opportunism and exploitation, but also a touching portrait of an authentic bond between a parent and child. [Synopsis courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival]

Marathon Boy
World Documentary Competition
Director: Gemma Atwal
Producers: Gemma Atwal, Matt Norman
Editor: Peter Haddon
Executive Producers: Alan Hayling, Sheila Nevins
Composer: Garry Hughes
Animation: Ben Foley

From privilege to production…

I never went to film school. I studied literature and international politics with human rights. I started working as a business journalist for a Madrid-based media company, posted to West Africa and South-East Asia. It was a privileged all-expenses paid lifestyle, in a bubble from the reality of the vast majority of citizens, and the perks began to wear thin leaving me disillusioned. I decided it wasn’t for me and returned to the UK, where a good friend of mine encouraged me to set up a small production company with him in Bristol. At that time, there were two brilliant BBC 2 documentary series being aired called “Picture This,” which was instrumental in introducing a large number of emerging directors into the documentary field, and “Under The Sun,” an anthropological series looking at diverse people and cultures around the world at the edge of rapid change or obliteration. I was hooked instantly.

Growing as a filmmaker…

We pitched some ideas and were commissioned to make a few observational half-hour films. They were magical, seminal days for me. I soon fell in love with the process of documentary filmmaking – how to craft a simple, truthful story out of a complex reality. I learned on the fly, making a point of always aligning myself with talented people and learning to trust my instincts about what works on screen. I’m constantly humbled by the trust ordinary people place in my hands when they tell me their story on camera. I was fortunate enough to have a remarkable mentor in Peter Symes – A veteran documentarian from my hometown, Bristol, formerly an Executive Producer at the BBC, who even to this day invites me round for tea and a chat. I still feel I have a lot to learn.

On coming to the “Marathon Boy”…

I came across a BBC News web piece on a small boy from the Indian slums who was running huge distances on a daily basis. It was astonishing. There was a photograph of Budhia’s coach with him, Biranchi Das, and their relationship instantly drew me in. Biranchi seemed to occupy that potent dual role in Budhia’s life of being both a father-figure and his trainer, and I wanted to understand more about the psychology of their union. What fascinated me most was their interdependency, their need of each other in life to get where they want. So much in India is linked to the notion of destiny and I was interested in those twists of fate that bind us to one another. I was also thinking about the spiritual significance of their relationship, for which we don’t have an equivalent in the West – it’s the bond between a guru and a disciple – more sacred than between a mother and a son.

Being drawn to the story…

There was a small part of Biranchi Das that reminded me of my own adoptive father, who took in a rag-tag bunch of abandoned kids from diverse Hindu, Sikh and Muslim backgrounds and gave them a stable upbringing. It was my personal circumstance that also drew me to other characters in the film. Similar to Budhia’s mum, my birth-mother belonged to the lowest Hindu caste and lived in extreme poverty. Fate led me to be adopted by a couple in England, and I lived an entirely different life filled with possibility.

We were following the story speculatively over a period of several years, self-funding as we went. It’s so hard to make films today, even harder to raise money. You are running on passion and commitment. But we knew that, even if we didn’t make our money back, it was a story worth telling. The narrative core for me was simple: at its heart is a story of hope: the hope of a small boy and his coach who unite to pursue a dream in a flawed society.

“Bollywood scripted by Dickens”?!?…

From an early stage I was thinking of the film as much in terms of drama as documentary. Budhia’s life read like a Bollywood movie scripted by Dickens and it begins as a classic underdog yarn: the chance for a slum-boy to break down India’s class divide and travel on the same superhighway to success as everyone else. The shadow of several fiction archetypes (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Rocky,” “Karate Kid”…) seemed to hover over the story: ” Marathon Boy” presents a goal-driven underdog faced with constant obstacles; a mentor-mentee relationship; a hero’s journey of mythic proportions and ultimately, triumph from tragedy, it’s a story with much needed redemption at the end for the boy.

Setting the parameters…

Perhaps the only certainty I held from an early stage was that I didn’t want to make a film from an overtly Western vantage point or one seen through the prism of European standards and conventions. I felt it could be patronizing and may result in an overly simplistic interpretation just to pander to our Western sensibility. It would have been all too easy to sermonise and follow a more hyperbolic path through events as they play out, with their obvious potential for high drama. Instead, the film deals in subtly shifting shades of grey, highlighting the complex motivation behind human endeavour. Multiple perspectives reveal the difference between subjective and objective truth. It’s left to the viewer to decide for themselves who are the heroes and who are the villains.

Taking a film crew to South Asia…

Filming in India presents a variety of difficulties in terms of permissions. One of the legacies the British left behind was this obsession with bureacracy. You have to be patient and stay relaxed and simply accept that your film’s destiny is going to be written in an unusual kind of way, far from what you’d imagined it would be. You have to discard all the things you would normally take with you on a filming trip – that sense of control, rationality, continuity and prepare yourself to embrace something much more fluid. It’s a complex and challenging place to work, but if you’re open to it and learn to love it then everything comes back to you for your film. It’s an incredibly generous place.

A story from the set…

It was 4.30am in May 2007 and Kamal, Matt and I arrived to film some general scenes in Gautam Nagar slum, where Budhia was born and his mother still lived. To our utter astonishment and sadness, the entire slum had been razed to the ground in a matter of a couple of days, having been built illegally on land owned by the railway authorities. Many of the children we’d been filming with were dispersed to different parts of Orissa State. A community uprooted. It was a vivid reminder of how precarious life could be here. Of the slum’s estimated 2,000 inhabitants, some 400 were children under 14. When we spoke to some of the adults, they were more upset at the loss of the training facilities for their kids, than at the loss of their homes. They told us that an entire sports belt had been wiped out, and that their children could no longer attend Biranchi Das’ judo hall each evening because they were now being forced to live too far away. It may sound incredible, but this slum in the city once produced 7 national gold medalists in judo, 60 state-level judo medal holders and a world record holder, Budhia Singh. All thanks to one man, Biranchi Das.

And from here, where do you go?

To give back and do some good for those we filmed with on “Marathon Boy.” Then begin again!

Visit the website to help Budhia and the orphanage.

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