Children, by the virtue of being children, draw out a feeling of adoration and favour. But when a four-year-old, hailing from the lowest rung in social hierarchy, makes history by running a marathon, the reigning sentiment is respect.
Poverty is not just an obstacle, it’s a childhood robbing, survival triggering, dark and desperate way of life lacking in breakthrough.
To emerge triumphant in the face of such dashed hopes is exhilarating for the individual but also reassuring to those committed to their progress.
In a tone far less overblown than most sports biopics, first-time director Soumendra Padhi recreates the milestone of India’s youngest marathon runner in Budhia Singh: Born To Run who entered the ‘Limca Book of Records’ in 2006 for covering 65 km distance from Puri to Bhubaneswar in seven hours two minutes.
What ensues from there on is not glory but grief.
Once the euphoria dies down, so does the promise of better prospects. Politics rears its ugly head and Budhia is banned from participating in any more marathons.
Budhia Singh: Born To Run is not so much a film as it is a passionate appeal to remind and regain an opportunity for Odisha’s erstwhile Wonder Boy, now a forgotten teenager.
It is Judo coach Biranchi Das (Manoj Bajpayee), who recognises the spark and extraordinary stamina in a slum-dwelling Budhia Singh (Mayur Patole) after he’s almost discarded by his callous mother (Tillotama Shome). He not only takes the foul-mouthed Budhia under his wing but also hones his talent in ways that are subject to debate.
Akin to house breaking a pet, his rigorous training and unrelenting approach to the young boy are unsettling to witness but Das is firm on his ‘better to die running than die like a dog’ beliefs and brushes aside any sign of guilt citing child prodigies like golfer Tiger Woods and footballer Jean Carlos Chera.
Budhia too doesn’t look like he minds — fulfilling assigned goals to earn treats and sneakers, unmindful of his embarrassing bladder bouts and revelling in the preferential treatment he receives over other kids in his trainer’s Judo group.
Padhi assembles a wonderful set of little boys and girls — natural actors — brightening up the scenes with their refreshing simplicity and unaffected charm. In their spontaneity and smiles, jealousy and jokes, the narrative affords itself a cushy chemistry brewing under Manoj Bajpayee’s watchful eye.
There’s a scene where a little boy, not particularly thrilled about Budhia hogging the limelight, narrates the classic fable of the hare and tortoise. What he’s hinting at and how Budhia turns it around is a witty but telling moment.
Mayur Patole, it must be said, does mighty good capitalising on his roguish eyes and artless enthusiasm. After watching stars visibly deglamourize themselves to play famous sportspersons, his lack of technique is heart-warming.
That supervising characteristic of Bajpayee’s Das extends itself to their equation as actors too. He treads the fine line between ambition and entitlement, father figure and guru in a dazzlingly sharp manner. At his best when playing people of tremendous spine and sharp tongue, the actor laces his performance in dynamic details.
For all its talk on prejudices, hypocrisy and complexities in people and politics, Budhia Singh: Born To Run is ultimately a children’s film, a National-Award winning one if you please, and dilutes much of its shrewdness to portray the bad guys more emphatically for its young viewer.
While it doesn’t berate Das or his reckless methods, it doesn’t wholeheartedly endorse them either. There’s footage of leading personalities from the field of sports and technology voicing their concern over the strain of such drills on a child. Their verdict insists Mowgli cannot exist outside The Jungle Book.
In a contrary view, Budhia is eulogised by the media as a knee-high Forrest Gump.
Previously in 2010, Gemma Atwal came out with a poignant documentary over the same titled Marathon Boy. Her character is observed in this big screen adaptation but from a distance.
Shot across Bhubaneshwar and Puri, the sublime scenery stays marvellously true to the region’s visual reality by Manoj Kumar Khatoi further boosted by its soulful Various Artists soundtrack. But Padhi’s biggest success is its casting and the grounded reality he applies to scenes of provincial life during Budhia-sparked events and its impact of publicity struck/shy locals.
He fumbles in the unresolved status quo between Das and his anxious wife (Shruti Marathe) and the feeble characterisation of Budhia’s mother as a self-seeking, empty presence.
From fame to obscurity, hunger to heartbreak, Budhia’s story is both sensational and sad. But, most of all, it’s incomplete with no finishing line in sight.