August 5, 2016
Manoj Bajpayee, Mayur Mahendra Patole, Tillotama Shome, Shruti Marathe, Gajraj Rao, Chhaya Kadam
CAUTION: VERY LONG REVIEW AHEAD
Budhia Singh – Born To Run is notable for many reasons. It puts the national spotlight back on wonderkid Budhia Singh who gained global attention in 2005-06 for running marathons at a very young age, culminating in a 65 km non-stop run from Bhubaneshwar to Puri in seven hours and two minutes when he was just four years old. It features an engaging performance by Manoj Bajpayee as Budhia’s coach, the late Biranchi Das, just months after Bajpayee’s riveting turn as a gay man victimised for his sexual orientation in Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh. And it stars an incredibly cute child called Mayur Mahendra Patole as Budhia.
Sadly, the film is notable for troubling reasons too.
Born To Run unwittingly highlights our national penchant for propaganda over facts, noise over news and our rampant, casual disregard for rules. It does so by circumventing uncomfortable questions about the ethics of training a little child so rigorously for marathons, even while making a show of addressing those questions. And it does this in an evident bid to project its protagonist as a positive figure, even while seeming to paint him in shades of grey. That protagonist, by the way, is Biranchi not Budhia, despite what the title indicates.
The fact is the film did not need to do any of this to build up Biranchi as a worthy hero. Media accounts of the coach (who was murdered in 2008) suggest that there was much to admire in him, just as there was much to question. More on that later in this review.
Writer-director Soumendra Padhi’s Budhia Singh – Born To Run, earlier titled Duronto, is based on the story of Bhubaneshwar boy Budhia who was sold by his poverty-stricken mother for Rs 800. His ‘owner’ ill-treats him. Biranchi – a local judo coach and philanthropist – rescues Budhia, and brings the boy to an orphanage that he (Biranchi) runs with his wife Gita.
One day, as punishment for some mischief, Biranchi orders Budhia to run around the orphanage compound until he is told to stop. The coach goes off on work, forgetting about the stricture. Much to his chagrin when he returns many hours later, Budhia is still running. Amazed at such physical strength and endurance in one so young, Biranchi sees in the child a future Olympian marathoner, and begins training him. When Budhia’s ability to run great lengths gets media coverage, Odisha’s child welfare officials intervene, pointing out that running marathons at that age is harmful. Biranchi is undeterred. Budhia is ultimately taken away from him, banned from running marathons and kept in a government hostel where he still lives.
Born To Run is an account of Biranchi’s association with Budhia. The skeletal plotline of the film provided in the above two paragraphs is supported by archival news coverage.
The film has a lot going in its favour in addition to its fascinating subject and endearing central cast. Odisha is a scenic state rarely visited by Bollywood. While exploring these relatively fresh pastures for his audience, DoP Manoj Kumar Khatoi delivers enough picturesque frames to give us an idea of what the Hindi film industry is missing, taking us past pretty country roads, bridges and brooks in areas where Biranchi trains Budhia, perhaps on the outskirts of their home city.
Born To Run jogs along at a pleasant pace, a result of Padhi’s easy directorial style, his writing (the screenplay and dialogues are both credited to him) and editor Shivkumar Panicker’s firm hand. The film’s various running events are well put together, and effectively draw the viewer in with smart editing, Subash Sahoo’s sound design and the never-intrusive background score.
It is a relief that the cast has not been asked to ‘do’ Oriya accents. Considering that stars trying accents usually end up faltering (case in point: Salman Khan in Sultan, rare exception: Konkona Sen Sharma in Mr & Mrs Iyer) or caricaturing the community to which their character belongs, this really is the best way to go.
The interactions between the children at the orphanage – all such spontaneous actors – play out smoothly. Bajpayee and Patole share a warm chemistry. And Marathi-Tamil actress Shruti Marathe is immensely watchable in the role of Biranchi’s wife Gita (although her issues with her husband are, like too much else in the film, left hanging in mid-air and not fully examined).
It would be wrong to allow Born To Run’s pluses to lull us into an acceptance of its evasiveness on crucial ethical issues. It is one thing to be a non-judgmental filmmaker leaving the audience to decide whose side they are on, but quite another to avoid laying out all the facts before the public to let them arrive at an informed conclusion. It is also not very honourable to employ subtle means throughout the film to, in effect, lobby for Biranchi. After all, in a case such as this one, the well-being of the child in question is what is of paramount importance.
Note how Odisha’s Child Welfare Minister Mahashweta Malik (a thinly veiled allusion to the state’s then Minister for Women and Child Welfare, Pramila Mullick) has been styled and performed by Chhaya Kadam as a churlish, emotionless, stereotypical schoolmarm. Note too Gajraj Rao’s sliminess as the Chairman of the state’s Child Welfare Committee and Malik’s ally in the clash with Biranchi. The film here taps into the average Indian’s visceral dislike and distrust of politicians and bureaucrats. What choice do these two have in a battle for viewers’ hearts when the full force of Bajpayee and Patole’s charms are simultaneously unleashed on us?
The film shows these unlikeable characters raising questions about Biranchi’s methods and the inappropriateness of training a three/four-year-old for marathons; it delivers passing expressions of concern from others whose questions are addressed firmly by Biranchi and not countered; it implies that Budhia and Biranchi were victims of political games rather than legitimate concerns (the reality was perhaps a combination of both); and it does not mention globally accepted norms or rules on this front. A foreign journalist in the film asks the Minister if the law is on her side, but the question is just left dangling there. Why?
Here is what Budhia Singh – Born To Run should have told us:
According to media articles from a decade back, in 2005 – that is, even before he had turned four – Budhia’s training regimen included seven hours of non-stop running each morning, followed by a break and then more running. Assuming that he was being given a weekly off from training, and that he just did one hour after his break, that would still be eight hours a day and 48 hours a week. Budhia had reportedly run 48 marathons by the time he turned four.
The internationally accepted distance for marathons has been 42.195 km since 1920, as per the Olympic Studies Centre of The International Olympic Committee. This means Budhia’s highly publicised 65 km run from Bhubaneshwar to Puri was about 23km above the standard.
No doubt then, he was naturally gifted. Question is: was it in his best interests to explore that gift as a virtual toddler, and how acceptable were the training techniques used?
A medical manual published by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in 2012 recommends 3 km as the maximum competition distance for children below nine years, and further recommends that marathons be run only after the age of 18. The document advocates not more than 6 km as the weekly training distance in the case of an under-nine-year-old – 6 km in an entire week, not the 48 or more that Budhia was doing while he trained under Biranchi.
The Athletics Federation of India is affiliated to IAAF. Even if IAAF norms were more relaxed in 2005-06 than they were in 2012 when this manual was published, it can be safely assumed that they were nowhere close to what Budhia’s body was being subjected to by a possibly well-meaning but misguided, misinformed coach. A good indicator of this comes from a 1987 policy statement of the Australian Sports Medicine Federation’s Children in Sport Committee published on the IAAF website, which recommends marathons only for above-18-year-olds, a maximum competition distance of 5 miles (approximately 8 km) for children below 12, and a weekly maximum training distance of 24 km. Budhia was running double this distance per week almost 20 years later at the age of three-four, at a time when sports federations worldwide were becoming more – not less – stringent than they were in 1987.
In an ideal world, a film critic should not require a calculator and medical documents while writing reviews. This is knowledge we should have gleaned from Born To Run. And here is a response to the predictable counter: it is true that this is not a documentary, but it is just as true that feature films are capable of conveying facts without charts and Powerpoint presentations.
If a coach was ignoring international norms for a three-four year old, it should not have mattered to the filmmaker that the man had plucked that child out of obscurity and penury, it should not have mattered that he gave the child a comfortable home. If you help someone to escape poverty, you do not automatically buy the right to exploit them. As viewers we cannot allow ourselves to be blinded to the truth by Manoj Bajpayee’s charisma, Mayur Mahendra Patole’s sweetness, our contempt for netas and babus or our bitter experiences with government red tape.
Two things matter: first, Budhia’s physique and psyche may well have been damaged due to Biranchi’s training; second, this film glosses over that possibility, instead making a diligent effort to earn public sympathy for Biranchi all these years later by drawing on our collective disillusionment with government. The film is designed to get us to believe Biranchi and doubt his sarkari detractors. And no, it is not enough that an opening disclaimer describes Born To Run as a fictionalised version of true events.
It is not as of Biranchi’s work with Budhia was intended as a protest against what he considered unreasonable Indian or international ethical norms. He was no Gandhi on the way to Dandi. It is evident from his interviews to reporters and even from this film that he either did not know what those norms were or did not care. The film reminds us that Biranchi wanted the child to win India a medal in the 2016 Olympics. Fact: Budhia is still not eligible to run an Olympic marathon and even if the Odisha government had nurtured his talent, he could not have run at Rio 2016.
The world is not fuelled by our misplaced patriotic support for Budhia’s right to run in the Olympics and officially recognised marathons in India or our frustration with Indian officialdom. The ongoing Rio Olympics 2016 has an age limit for the marathon event, as did the 2012 Olympics: under-20s are not allowed. Budhia is still just 14.
So yes, the Odisha government should have got experts to assess his talent, they should have planned his future accordingly and it is unforgivable if they have not done so. Budhia has been quoted in DNA newspaper this week saying he has spent the past 10 years “in a sports hostel training for marathons”, but Padhi has said elsewhere that Budhia is being trained for sprints. Either way, our anger against trademark sarkari callousness cannot translate into a disinterest in facts.
It would be inexcusable enough if it turns out that Soumendra Padhi made an entire film on Biranchi’s dream for Budhia without knowing global norms for marathons and medical guidelines for children in athletics. What would be worse though is if we discover that he knew, but chose to keep his viewers in the dark.
Has Padhi used our ignorance to manipulate us into rooting for a debatable hero, in a bid to draw us to his film? Or are broad brushstrokes just easier to write than nuanced arguments?
The film fails to mention that Odisha’s Department of Women and Child Welfare was not the only statutory body worried about Budhia’s well-being, and that the National Human Rights Commission had asked them to intervene after Budhia collapsed at the end of his (in)famous Bhubaneshwar-Puri run. The text flashing on screen at the end of this film claims that many in Odisha feel there was a larger conspiracy behind Biranchi’s murder than was ever revealed, thus gently nudging us to consider that anti-Budhia interests were at play. It fails to add what media reports from back then reveal: that Biranchi was killed by a gangster allegedly for helping a model who was being stalked by that gangster.
It goes without saying that such a man is worthy of a biopic and Padhi need not have worked so hard to elevate Budhia’s mentor in our eyes. Even in the matter of Budhia, even among cynics, there were those who had kind words for Biranchi. Here is a helpful extract from a 2011 article on cnn.com about Gemma Atwal, whose multiple-award-winning documentary Marathon Boy follows Budhia from 2005-2010:
Atwal said she doesn’t question Das’ benevolence. The children he rescued, she said, were the love of his life. But his love of children “was eclipsed by his dream of finding a sport champion among them,” she said.
Given all its positives, Budhia Singh – Born To Run could have been a great film if only Padhi had not been chary of highlighting his chosen protagonist’s warts along with his virtues. The fate of the evidently talented Budhia is a tale crying out to be told in a country shamefully short on sporting excellence. But it is unacceptable that the film does not state in black and white that Biranchi was wrong to tax a three-four year old child’s body in the way he did. This is not debatable, as Born To Run suggests. This is a fact.
The fact is too that the truth about Biranchi, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is a story worth telling.
Rating (out of five): **
CBFC Rating (India):
111 minutes 22 seconds
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/BudhiaBornToRun/home