Six years ago, in an impoverished corner of India, an orphanage director and a slum boy captured the imagination of their country. Plucked from obscurity and thrust into the national spotlight, Budhia Singh ran 48 marathons by the age of four, winning thousands of fans and making headlines around the world. But what started as a remarkable rags-to-riches saga morphed into a tale of greed, corruption and broken dreams. The action-packed MARATHON BOY recounts Budhia Singh’s fascinating story.
Filmed between 2005 and 2010, MARATHON BOY is a riveting exploration of poverty, corruption and exploitation. Born next to a railroad track, Singh was sold by his destitute mother to a street hawker at age three. Destined to lead a desperate existence as a beggar, he was rescued by Biranchi Das, a concerned local judo coach who ran an orphanage for slum children.
Recognizing in Singh an uncommon talent for long-distance running, Das became his mentor and nurtured the boy’s gift. A master showman, Das also organized marathon events designed to showcase Singh’s talent and raise his profile, thereby turning him into a folk hero for the underprivileged masses.
Fascinated by the boy’s ability after reading about him online, British filmmaker Gemma Atwal set out to film his story, focusing on his complex relationship with Biranchi Das, whose genuine affection for the child is countered by his zeal to burnish Singh’s celebrity at all costs. Allowed direct access over the course of five years, Atwal and her crew captured many of the boy’s racing milestones as a three- and four-year-old, as well as intimate moments between Singh, Das and his wife Gita, who is interviewed for the film, along with several other principals.
Atwal chronicles the government’s growing disapproval of Das’ tactics, especially in the wake of the four-year-old’s highly publicized 40-mile run – a marathon is just over 26 miles – in 93-degree heat, after which Singh collapsed on the “victory” stand.
That incident, combined with criticism of Das by Singh’s birth mother, Sukanti Singh, led to investigations of the coach, who lost custody of Budhia in 2007. The conclusion of MARATHON BOY is jarring and unexpected, as Singh is coerced to entrap Das, who pays a heavy penalty for helping turn a slum boy into a celebrated, albeit polarizing, figure across India.
In addition to striking location footage shot in Orissa and Delhi, MARATHON BOY includes animated shadow puppet sequences that underscore a dark fairytale quality of this unsettling story.
MARATHON BOY is the first feature of Gemma Atwal, who has worked as a freelance director and producer on a variety of documentaries. Prior to her documentary work, she spent four years working as a journalist in Africa, Southeast Asia and Europe.
MARATHON BOY is directed by Gemma Atwal; producers, Gemma Atwal and Matt Norman; executive producer, Alan Hayling; film editor, Peter Haddon; director of photography, Matt Norman; composer, Garry Hughes; animation, Ben Foley. For HBO: senior producer, Lisa Heller; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.