Thursday, 27 October 2011

4-Year-Old Athlete Is India’s ‘Marathon Boy’

Budhia Singh, a freakishly gifted young athlete from Bhubaneswar, Orissa, was just four years old when he ran his 48th full marathon.

Little Budhia made headlines in India and around the world over the next few years, but his story also generated much controversy in India among child rights activists, who accused his charismatic trainer and adopted father, famed athletic trainer Biranchi Das, of exploiting Budhia’s talents for Das’s own fame. For his part, Das — who adopted Budhia after his mother, Sukanti, sold him to a local merchant — claimed that he had saved the boy from a short, nasty life in the slums and offered him education, a roof over his head, and a chance at a productive and successful future.

British-Indian journalist-turned-filmmaker Gemma Atwal has crafted a fascinating documentary about the phenomenon of Budhia Singh called “Marathon Boy,” which will air several times on HBO from Nov. 3 onward.

The film has been earning awards and raves at film festivals everywhere, and its skill in portraying the mix of its characters’ greed and ambition has ma
de it the subject of Oscar buzz on several influential film blogs including In Contention.

Atwal, herself a marathon runner, spent five years traveling back and forth from England to India to follow Budhia’s story, doing odd jobs to earn money to shoot the film. She spoke to India-West by phone recently from New York.

Q: How has reaction b
een? Since the film had its North American premiere at Tribeca in April, you’ve been to a lot of festivals, including the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival here.

A: We got these great reviews and great response at festivals — every festival we applied to has accepted the film. We had tears and standing ovations in Moscow and Korea. North American audiences have totally embraced the complexity of the story, which is great. I’m really excited; HBO and in particular [HBO executive producer] Sheila Nevins and [HBO senior producer] Lisa Heller have just been fantastic throughout the entire journey of “Marathon Boy.” Without their backing the film wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, quite frankly. It will reach the widest audience possible and it’s going to be great.

Q: Tell us about your own background: you have an Indian last name.

A: My name, Atwal, is a Sikh name; my adopted father is from the Punjab. I was adopted by a family in England. My birth mother was from a very poor background in India, similar to Sukanti. That is one of the reasons I was drawn to the story, to understand Sukanti’s situation. My birth mother gave me up because I was a girl, basically. It’s preferred to have a boy in India; she decided that she couldn’t take care of me.

And this wonderful twist of fate allowed me to be adopted by a family in England and led to an entirely different life. My adopted mother is English and my adopted father is Sikh. A small part of Biranchi Das in a way reminded me of my own adopted father, in the way he took all those kids from diverse Hindu, Sikh and Muslim backgrounds and gave them a stable upbringing. My family is really special, actually.

Q: You have said that you tried to remain neutral throughout the filming, but on one occasion, when Budhia started to break down during a world record 65-kilometer run at age 4, you felt compelled to turn off your camera so that you could help him.

A: It’s so much harder to stay objective when one of the people you are filming is a child. Especially such a young child — ethical considerations become paramount. I also became pregnant and gave birth to my own child while making “Marathon Boy,” which also had a bearing on how protective I felt towards Budhia.

You have to grow with your film to truly understand what your film is about — to understand the interconnection of all your story elements. There was one part during the record run where, for the first time, I could tell that Budhia was not enjoying it. It was an outlandish distance, and I stopped filming actually when Budhia looked up at me and clearly was in pain. I shouted to Biranchi, “Take a good look at your son that you claim to care for so much!” It was heartwrenching and very difficult to see.

Q: I wonder why Budhia was not given electrolyte drinks, such as coconut water, or why other precautions seemingly weren’t taken for his health.

A: He had water at regular intervals and was given quarters of orange and banana, but I don’t think [electrolyte] drinks are readily available. Biranchi was very stubborn and insisted that he had Budhia’s best interest at heart, and this was the way he’d always trained him. He wasn’t going to change it for a record run.

That’s one of the things in the documentary — I really wanted to suspend my Western perspective and not see this film through the prism of my European standards. The question was never “Should Budhia be running these outlandish distances?” since nobody in the West would say that was a good idea. But the far more interesting question was “How was it possible for Budhia to exist as a running phenomenon in the first place?” In the West he wouldn’t exist at all. What context — political, social and cultural — enabled this to happen?

Q: You find yourself in a fortunate situation as a filmmaker, seeing this unfold. You were in the right place and the right time to make this film.

A: It seems that we didn’t miss a thing, right? We had this depth of coverage, over a long period of time. We basically had to live the story for five years, and coupled with that was the need to maintain access — even when things are going badly for our characters. We’d make visits to India sometimes for as little as 10 days and other times for up to 3 months … So much happened during those five years, the various twists and turns that were impossible to predict from the outset.

What begins as hope and a sporting effort crosses the line into top-level greed, envy and corruption. I just became gripped by the story ever darkening. Because I had such access to both sides of the custody battle [between Sukanti and Biranchi], I wanted to handle the moral debate and the complex motivation behind human endeavor in the most sophisticated and rigorous way I could. Then it just became about maintaining trust with all characters. We never sided with one contributor against the other.

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