Originally titled Duronto, writer-director Soumendra Padhi’s National Award-winning film (for children) looks at the triumphant and tragic true story of a 5-year-old boy and his mentor coach.
In a key sequence from Budhia Singh — Born To Run, a man named Biranchi Das (Manoj Bajpayee), who runs a Judo-training institute in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, that trains orphaned street children, admonishes one of his boys for swearing. That boy is the impish Budhia Singh who, without remorse, starts carrying out the punishment: running around the courtyard in circles until specifically told to stop.
Then, Biranchi, who owns a number of small businesses — such as a local dhaba — goes off to see to his work, presumably under the impression that the kid would get tired at some point and stop on his own. By the time he returns, he’s dumbfounded to find that Budhia is still running, tirelessly.
It’s easy to think of this scene as typical movie fiction — except this is pretty much exactly how the real Biranchi had discovered that Budhia, then four years old, possessed special, unreal reserves of stamina; it was an ability that would make him the world’s youngest marathon ‘player’ (as Biranchi liked to say) in a couple of years. However, the difference lies in minor details. The movie tells us that by the time Biranchi returned, it was dark, implying he’d been running almost the whole day; in reality, he’d left him in the morning and returned by lunchtime.
Such tiny cinematic liberties are par for the course for Budhia Singh, which is, on the whole, a competent and respectable feature film debut for writer-director Soumendra Padhi. Originally titled Duronto, this film won a National Award for Best Children’s Film earlier this year — a perplexing choice, considering that aside from its pint-sized protagonist, there is nothing remotely children’s-movie-like about it. Despite its title, the film is less about the boy and more about the state of Odisha: its crippling poverty, convoluted party politics, and shocking disregard for the sanctity of human life.
In many ways, it is a faithful, slightly-Bollywood-ised retelling of actual events that were already covered in Gemma Atwal’s fantastic, Emmy-nominated documentary Marathon Boy (2010). We’re introduced to young Budhia (Mayur Patole, who looks and acts almost exactly like the real marathon runner), whose destitute mother Sukanti (Tillotama Shome, on autopilot) has sold him to a hawker for Rs 850. The man, however, is an abusive drunk, and often spends the money he could use to provide Budhia with food on alcohol. One dramatic scene later (which, again, actually happened, but in a slightly different manner), Budhia is whisked away by Biranchi, who later goes on to adopt him.
This is a story so fantastical that it’s hard to believe it really happened, which makes it an excellent subject for a feature film. Padhi, to some extent, succeeds in crafting an engaging narrative, albeit with the most predictable of devices. As stated earlier, there’s very little we’re told about the boy himself — Marathon Boy, despite not having the luxury of fictionalising its narrative, did a better job of showing us how Budhia was, like many slum kids, a combination of street-smart and emotionally stunted.
As one would expect, there are a number of training montages leading up to the film’s central sequence: the 70 km run from Puri to Bhubaneswar, recreated excellently. The central themes — of whether Biranchi is guilty of exploiting the kid for his own gains; whether sporting excellence is worth a childhood lost — are brought out well. The background score by Ishaan Chhabra and Sidhant Mathur is used well — if I had to nit-pick, though, I’d say it felt a tad over-orchestrated, indicating that either the director or the composers misjudged the size of their storytelling canvas.
It isn’t all smooth sprinting. There are times when Budhia Singh acquires the aesthetic of a straight-to-TV film, particularly in scenes set in the offices of Odisha’s Ministry of Child Welfare. The only real antagonists in the film are the inscrutable Minister of Child Welfare (Chaya Kadam) and the chairman of the state’s Child Welfare Committee, RK Misra (Gajraj Rao, also one of the film’s producers), who repeatedly threaten Biranchi with legal action for exploiting the young boy (which the film makes a few allusions towards).
Their portrayals, unfortunately, aren’t nuanced enough, with fictionalised scenes occasionally painting them as Twistian villains. In particular, Rao, who is always an enjoyable actor to watch, plays to the gallery here in a self-aware turn as the movie’s token laughter-generating, bumbling ‘bad guy’. It isn’t problematic by itself — it just belongs in a different film. Ditto the clumsy and insertion of an American documentary filmmaker (a stand-in for Atwal, who is half-British and half-Indian), which is handled unconvincingly and whose lacklustre presence barely impacts the narrative.
On the other hand, Bajpayee, in his third film this year, is rock-solid as Biranchi, a charismatic and determined man who is persecuted by the government and media despite being well-connected. He is the film’s true protagonist, and it’s his heroic — and ultimately, tragic — arc that truly sustains the viewer’s interest in the film. Sure, he isn’t anywhere as enigmatic as the real Biranchi, but the veteran actor does a good job in hitting all the dramatic crests and troughs in a consistent manner. Shruti Marathe, who plays his wife Gita, is similarly competent.
Biranchi, both in the movie and in real life, often touted Budhia as India’s best bet for getting a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics. In a calculated move, the film’s release coincides with the commencement of the mega-event, currently underway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Today, the real Budhia Singh has lost his mentor and is still banned from running.
Budhia Singh — Born To Run, therefore, despite its shortcomings, also ends up being an effective indictment of Indian bureaucracy and its myopia. Today, Budhia Singh’s story has made it to a few hundred movie screens across the country, but I’d bet he’d give all of that up to be at Rio instead. What a pity!