(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)
Soumendra Padhi’s “Budhia Singh - Born to Run” is based on the real-life story of a five-year-old who was hailed as India’s youngest marathoner and a sporting prodigy. Born into poverty in the eastern state of Odisha, the scrawny kid was touted as the next big thing in Indian sport after he ran marathon after marathon without ever seeming to tire.
Relentlessly pushed by his coach Biranchi Das (Manoj Bajpayee), Singh becomes something of a show animal and less of a serious sportsperson, a tragedy the film captures honestly. Child actor Mayur Patole plays the role of the wunderkind, who has as much sass as he does stamina. When Das first comes across Singh, the boy has just slammed a glass bottle on the head of a man to whom he was sold by his poverty-stricken mother. Das, who runs a residential judo school, takes him home and feeds him, but the latter is hardly grateful.
One day, Das punishes the boy for misbehaving by asking him to run around the courtyard till he is asked to stop. Five hours later, Singh is still running, almost as if on autopilot. A shrewd man, Das realises he has a potential star on his hands. Against the well-meaning advice of his wife (Shruti Marathe), he pushes the kid, feeding him protein shakes and making him run long distances until he becomes a local celebrity. But not everyone is happy. The state’s child welfare commission, fuelled in part by old political rivalries, is critical of his coaching tactics, while Budhia Singh’s parents want their share of their son’s fame and money.
Padhi faithfully chronicles all these events, sticking to the main narrative of Singh, Das and their relationship. The sequence where the boy runs a distance of 65 kilometres from Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar to the coastal city of Puri is shot wonderfully and speaks volumes of a culture which still treats sports as entertainment and little else. As Singh trudges along in 50 degree Celsius heat, there are sadhus standing at the edge of the road to bless him, women decked out in their finery and vendors selling food and toys as people wait for this five-year old to perform a seemingly impossible task.
But where Padhi fails in his chronicle of a fallen sports hero is when he describes Das as the sole reason for Singh’s success and their separation as the reason for the child’s downfall. Das’ methods are at best questionable, and you are left wondering if he is using Singh for his own gains. Yet, in the epilogue, Padhi claims Singh could have become Olympian if he had stayed with his coach.
This glitch aside, “Budhia Singh - Born to Run” is an honest and sincere attempt at a sports biopic - a rarity in Bollywood, which tends towards melodrama and obscures reality even when it comes to telling real-life stories. For that alone, Padhi’s effort is commendable.