A quick refresher from Wiki is all you need to know why a movie was begging to be made from the story of Budhia Singh: “Budhia Awooga Singh (born 2002) is an Indian boy and the world’s youngest marathon runner. Singh was born in the state of Odisha. He ran from Bhubaneswar to Puri at the age of four covering 65 kilometres (40 mi) in seven hours and two minutes and was listed as the world’s youngest marathon runner in the Limca book of records in the year 2006. As of February 2016, Budhia Singh, now 14, remains a legend in his home state of Odisha, India, even as his athletic prowess has faded.” In an early scene in Budhia Singh – Born to Run, set at a press conference, the boy’s mentor and coach Biranchi Das (an excellent Manoj Bajpayee) tells the assembled journalists that our country has produced no marathoners. “Budhia hamara sapna poora karega.” This led me to expect a rah-rah story borne along the dreams of a nation. What we get is a nightmare. I doubt if I’ve seen another “sports biopic” this downbeat.
Budhia Singh begins by checking off the biopic must-haves, setting up the characters of Budhia (Mayur Patole) and Biranchi. Budhia lives in a slum, sharing discarded bidis with friends, thrusting a hand through the open window of a car hoping for a handout. Things are so bad that his mother Sukanti (Tillotama Shome, looking wan and miscast) sells him to a hawker for Rs. 850. Biranchi saves the boy, and we get the hint that he’s a do-gooder with a bit of a messiah complex. Biranchi’s house is a home for many orphans. He teaches them judo. In a lovely, offhand scene, his wife (Gita, played by Shruti Marathe; they make a very believable couple) says she wants her own child. She’s gentle and loving and patient with other people’s children, but there’s enough of an Indian woman inside her to make her desire a child of her own. The characters are defined with these swift little strokes (as no scene lingers very long, the film seems to be running too) – but slowly we see that director Soumendra Padhi doesn’t just want to tell Budhia’s story. He wants to put the Budhia phenomenon under a microscope and make us ask questions. Nuanced questions.
When Biranchi discovers, accidentally, that Budhia has extraordinary reserves of stamina, he sets about making the boy a marathoner, and in one of these races, we cut from Budhia pounding the roads in 47-degree weather to his friends in class, fooling around during recess. We think a (too-easy) point is being made: Budhia’s childhood has been snatched from him. But then, we cut to the staff room, where the TV is on, showing live coverage of Budhia’s run. The principal is watching with a proud smile. This is the man who, earlier, refused to admit Budhia under the sports quota or the backward quota. But now, he’s probably thinking how good this is going to be for his school. For Budhia too, probably. Otherwise, he’d still be in that slum, in that house where his mother complained, “Peene ko paani nahin hai aur chhat se paani tapak raha hai.” But wait. “Peene ko paani nahin hai” is, even now, a fact of life. Sometime during the race, the upbeat score disappears and we hear nothing but Budhia panting. (The sound is amplified.) He asks for water. Biranchi, who’s alongside in a cycle, picks up a bottle and holds it in front of Budhia, but doesn’t actually give him any water. Budhia continues to run.
And we keep asking questions. Is this, as the Child Welfare Ministry claims, cruelty? Is this exploitation? Is being physically coerced (as Budhia is) any different from being mentally coerced, the way kids are pressured to perform in academics? Is Biranchi using the boy to fulfil his own thwarted dreams? Does he see that this child will bring him the kind of fame that none of his other orphans will? Is the coach, in other words, cashing in on a star, like the people holding up “go green” placards along the way (hoping for free media coverage), like Budhia’s mother (hoping for more money), like the local politicians (hoping for an issue they can… exploit)? Could the money spent on firecrackers to celebrate Budhia’s achievements have not been better spent on hand pumps for the people in the slum? Is Biranchi right in favouring Budhia over the other boys, buying him new shoes and putting him on a diet of apples and almonds? But how else does one encourage precocious talent? If you’ve read those stories about child actors and their dragon moms, you feel for the loss of innocence but you also know that had these kids not been pushed, there’s a good chance they’d never be leading the kind of life that ends up in newspapers, the kind of life most kids never get. Or is it better to remain anonymous? How soon is too soon to begin training, and if not honed this early, will it still be the same talent?
It’s a credit to the film that it leaves us with these questions even as we are left in little doubt that Budhia was a “performing monkey”. The term is first used by a TV anchor, and before a big run, we are given shots of the Jagannath temple, outside which lies a… performing monkey, with a chain around its neck. Biranchi treats Budhia like one. Pointing to the documentarian filming the race, Biranchi tells Budhia, “Udhar dekh ke salaam kar.” Later, Biranchi makes Budhia stand on a car and repeat anti-Child Welfare Ministry slogans. Biranchi even takes Budhia’s arm and flaps it in the direction of an assembled audience, literally treating the boy like a puppet. But the boy isn’t much more. When his mother takes him to the cops and attempts to convince them that Biranchi beat the boy, Budhia says what she wants him to say. He has no mind of his own. (And to be fair, how many five-year-olds do? Mayur Patole’s grave impassiveness contributes hugely to our perception of Budhia as someone who does things not because he wants to but because he’s asked to.). In Budhia’s first day at school, when asked what he did since morning, he says, “Hagaa aur bhaaga.” The line makes the other children (and us) laugh, but once the laughs die down, we see that that’s what his life has been reduced to, basic bodily functions and running. And what must it have been like for a five-year-old to handle the kind of crowds that make up India? Budhia cannot even get a blood test done without being surrounded by TV cameras. Budhia Singh won last year’s National Award for Best Children’s Film, but you don’t want your children anywhere near this horror story.
And yet, Biranchi isn’t an ogre. Behind his questionable methods we sense the genuine belief that stern coaches have, that “Kutte ki tarah marne se achcha hai daud daud ke mare.” He does seem to have Budhia’s best interests at heart. As Budhia’s mother says, “Uska baap ne bhi itna nahin kiya.” Bajpayee gives us a man who is, at once, nice and kind and shrewd and manipulative – in other words, the classic shades-of-grey protagonist. As much as we resent Biranchi at times, we also see Budhia would never have become a Wikipedia entry without him. Still, it’s Budhia we keep coming back to. What a tragedy! The boy was eventually banned from running, and today, we wonder what would have become of this teenager had he been allowed to fulfil his potential. Only once are we allowed into Budhia’s inner world. The little boy is in a Sports Hostel run by the government. Biranchi comes to see him one last time. The boy looks dazed. If he’s sad that Biranchi is no longer allowed to coach him, or that he’s no longer allowed to run, or that he misses his mother or his family of orphans, he doesn’t show it. But once Biranchi leaves, we see Budhia in his room, weeping silently. Had this heartbreaking shot been a still photograph, it could have been titled ‘The Private Life of a Performing Monkey’.
- “Budhia hamara sapna poora karega.” = Budhia will make our dream come true.
- “Peene ko paani nahin hai aur chhat se paani tapak raha hai.” = There’s no water to drink, and the roof is leaking water.
- “Udhar dekh ke salaam kar.” = Look there and do a salaam.
- “Hagaa aur bhaaga.” = I took a dump. I ran.
- “Kutte ki tarah marne se achcha hai daud daud ke mare.” = It’s better to run and die (of exhaustion) than die after living a dog’s life.
- “Uska baap ne bhi itna nahin kiya.” = Even his father did not do this much for him.
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.