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.
Director's Statement Collapse
In 2005, the BBC posted a story on their website about a four-year-old boy from the slums of India who was running huge distances on a regular basis, the equivalent of a marathon. It was astounding and unsettling. There was a photograph of Budhia's mentor with him and their relationship instantly fascinated me. Biranchi Das seemed to occupy that potent dual role in Budhia's life of being both a foster father and a coach and I wanted to understand more about the psychology of their relationship. Why Budhia runs these distances for him, and what would be the consequences of him stopping? Beyond these initial impressions, I wasn't really sure where a trip out there would lead, but I was curious, in part because my own father is Indian and I'm a keen marathon runner. I think I knew there was a film here when I realized just how extraordinary Budhia Singh was, and how complex their relationship was. Nothing prepared me, however, for what unfolded during those five years of filming.
What struck me very early on were the different perceptions out there regarding the boy's coach, Biranchi Das. In the West, we know him because of Budhia and he's largely painted as a two-dimensional villain, whereas on the ground in India, he's the Good Samaritan and hero of the slums; the man who rescued Budhia from the oppression and anonymity of poverty. There was rarely a time when I'd turn up at the judo hall and there wouldn't be some damsel in distress or a line of people there to solicit Biranchi's help in some dispute or with medical bills. And he would never turn anyone away, he would always help. You can't help but admire this. So my approach evolved and I began to see both Budhia and Biranchi as the main subjects of the film. In many ways, Budhia is the vehicle into the story while Biranchi is the main driving force behind it. The story becomes just as much about this poor man living in a flawed society who's trying to make a difference and do good things. It's his search for meaning in a world that seems ruthless and chaotic.
I knew that I didn't want to make the 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. And although we're dealing with something that is undeniably disturbing, I didn't want this to become an issue-led film, with a British voice-over. Instead, all voices you hear issue from Orissa soil. In turn, this introduces the concept of objective versus subjective truth as well as inexact notions of good and evil.
Given that there was no footage, I wanted to find a way to represent the points of deep emotional trauma for Budhia, that form catalyst events in his life: being bought, sold, kidnapped, close to death's door. I wanted them to be from a small boy's vantage point, akin to a dark fairy tale. I've always loved the work of a brilliant artist, Lotte Reiniger, who pioneered a distinctive style of black and white silhouette animation in her interpretation of classic myths back in the 1930s, and so we came up with a hybrid, drawing on Reiniger and traditional Oriya shadow puppetry, at once disturbing and enchanting. The animation also served to book-end the entire film in a world of myth verite. The natural extension to this became the animated slates, similar to chapter headings in a book. A story already made myth.
One of the most challenging aspects for me (perhaps as a woman who gave birth to her own son while making this film) was to make a story on a small boy and resist the temptation to turn it into a "how can we save this boy?" storyline or outcome—to resist becoming part of his story. I hope that the film is more powerful, however, because we stepped back from this happening. The film now is very much about modern India, split down the middle by this boy, and st