SAN FRANCISCO — The story was an oddity, the kind of thing one reads in a “weird but true” news column: a 3-year-old boy in India’s eastern state of Orissa is discovered to have the gift of nearly superhuman athletic endurance.
Little Budhia Singh — born in a Bhubaneswar slum and sold by his mother to a street hawker — is rescued by a local sports trainer and impresario who discovers that the boy can run. And run, and run. By age 4, Budhia has already completed in a stunning 48 full marathons, and he becomes the world’s youngest marathon runner when he makes the Limca Book of Records with a run of 40 miles in just over seven hours.
British journalist Gemma Atwal was transfixed when she spotted Budhia on a BBC news site in 2005. She decided to track down Budhia and the trainer who made it all possible, Biranchi Das. The tale she chronicles over the next five years in this unforgettable documentary rivals any dramatic thriller.
Marathon Boy is blessed with two unforgettable central characters, and exposes layers of political intrigue, greed and even a brutal murder, while raising questions about the nature of exploitation. Screened in documentary competition at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the film will air exclusively on HBO.
Although Marathon Boy is named after young Budhia, the real star that emerges is Das, a handsome, charismatic and P.R.-savvy judo trainer whose students have gone on to represent India in the Olympics. Das knew that Budhia had something special, and was ready to go to any length to push him to achieve his extreme feats. Das and his wife adopt the boy so that he can train him. Das feeds him, clothes him, sends him to school and offers him fame and the approval of millions. Budhia seems to thrive, but concerned Indian child welfare agencies and local government officials distrust his mentor’s motives, and throw up resistance and bureaucratic roadblocks.
Budhia’s supporters can’t see why the wrath of the law is focused on Das. “Kids from the slums are working in brick factories, dying in the streets, yet no one cares for them,” says one character in the film. But shocking images of the slim child, soaked in sweat and dangerously dehydrated after the record-breaking 40-mile run in 93-degree heat, tell another story. Atwal says she had a strict policy not to intervene, but she was so disturbed filming these scenes that she switched off the camera and, in tears, started screaming for help.
The film’s derivative soundtrack is its only weak link. But Atwal, a journalist making her feature documentary debut, has created a remarkable film that poses disturbing questions. Her clever use of shadow puppet animation between scenes lends the film the air of a grim fairy tale.