Marathon Boy

Marathon Boy


Reviewed by: Val Kermode

“One day I will run all the way to the Olympics!”

Budhia Singh has already run six half-marathons by the age of three. Born in the slums of Bhubaneswar, a coastal town in the east Indian state of Orissa, Budhia was sold by his mother for 800 rupees to a peddlar who beat him. Then he was taken in by Biranchi Das who, together with wife Gita, runs an orphanage and judo hall. This man became his coach and eventually adopted him. “We want Budhia to be the number one marathon runner in the world!”

The story of how Budhia's talent was discovered (shown here in reconstruction) is a charming one. Budhia, being a slum child, is given to swearing. He is seen running along the road shouting “Motherfucker!” to any cyclist who gets in his way. One day, as a punishment for swearing in the orphanage, Biranchi told him to run. He then went off to work, expecting the child to stop when he got tired, but when he came home hours later Budhia was still running.

This film was made over five years, from 2005. The director says that she originally expected it to be completed in a much shorter time. But no one could have foreseen the extraordinary events which were to occur. Her intention was to find out more about this little boy and the relationship with his adopted father. The big question which hangs over the whole enterprise is: is this a case of child exploitation or child rescue? As head of the orphanage, no one seems to have a bad word to say about Biranchi Das. He runs the place entirely on his own money, making sure that the children eat healthy food every day. Local people admire him and teenagers who have been rescued from starvation sing his praises. He seems genuinely to care about all the children. There is no doubt he is a showman with good PR contacts who knows how to attract the media and obviously enjoys all the attention, but that is the worst anyone can say about him.

But what about his plans for Budhia? At the age of just three years and eight months, Budhia is taken by train to be entered for the Delhi marathon. By this time the authorities are becoming concerned and he is not allowed to run. By the age of four he has run in 48 marathons. The Ministry of Child Welfare in Orissa is now in battle with Biranchi Das, alleging that this treatment of such a young child is dangerous. We hear the sensible words of the welfare officer, yet it is clear that Budhia adores Biranchi and adores running. As he trains, he is continually looking up to his father with smiles and calling out to him to look how well he is doing. It doesn't look like the behaviour of an exploited child.

Then at the age of five he prepares for a run of 42 miles. The run begins in the dark, but as daylight comes the temperature soars to 93°F. After 26 miles, Budhia looks exhausted and is swerving as he runs. Cheered on by crowds and with cameras thrust into his face, he completes the run, then is urged by Biranchi to continue for another mile so that he can meet the dignitaries in the stadium. He is given water, which he vomits back in front of the cameras. An army doctor says that he is on the point of death. This makes for harrowing viewing and is a turning point in the film. We have to ask ourselves whether we are watching a child being exploited or whether we are ourselves guilty of exploitation. The director says this is the one point where she did try to intervene, asking Biranchi not to make Budhia continue. But one of those cameras pointing at this child was the one that enabled us to watch this entertainment.

At this point the authorities step in, arresting Biranchi on accusations of torture and subjecting Budhia to medical examination. This seems to exploit the poor child further, as the whole procedure is filmed by news cameras. Biranchi has been accused of beating and scalding the child, but is soon freed as no evidence is found. All the locals support Biranchi and Budhia seems happy to be back in his care.

Meanwhile Budhia's birth mother, who has always been allowed access by Biranchi , starts to quarrel with him over money which she believes he has made from the boy's appearances. She takes Budhia back to live in the slums and Biranchi is unable to get him back. Budhia is clearly unhappy there. But then something much worse happens and the story takes a totally unexpected turn.

A lot of the film is shot in verité style. Gemma Atwal and her crew slept in the slums during the time Budhia was there. She says that people talked freely, knowing that they couldn't be understood. Some of the tapes were only translated five years later. Some scenes are obviously reconstruction and there are many face to camera interviews. Budhia is given many opportunities to speak for himself and usually, but not always, doesn't appear to be under any pressure.

The director is to be congratulated for her determination not to judge everything by Western standards. For this reason she chose not to use any voiceover. Reminding us of the cultural setting, she links the scenes by captions in the form of Indian shadow puppets.

Without revealing the film's ending, I can still say that this is quite a disturbing film, both in the issues it deals with and in the way it was made. It raises questions of the priorities of film makers. How far should a documentary maker remain neutral? When is more ethical to intervene? These questions were raised at Sheffield's Doc/Fest screening and provided much food for thought.

Reviewed on: 19 Nov 2010
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A portrait of the competitive interests and corruption surrounding a child with an extraordinary gift for distance running.
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Director: Gemma Atwal

Starring: Budhia Singh

Year: 2010

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: UK, US

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