The world of sports and athletics offer endless examples of gifted but burnt out young athletes. Tennis has Andrea Jaeger, Jennifer Capriati and to a lesser extent, Tracy Austin. It also has examples abound of parents or coaches exploiting a talent that they want to nurture at all costs, sometimes to the point of abuse. Andre Agassi opened a can of worms in his autobiography Open about this very topic – about the practices that he hated, the hatred he had for his father for forcing him onto tennis and having ridiculous expectations of him. Today, as the Olympics begin in Rio De Janeiro, we have a true Indian story told on screen, a what-if Olympian story set in the mid 00s, that name drops Olympics 2016 – Budhia Singh Born To Run, directed by Soumendra Padhi.
The stark difference between the popular sports burnout stories and Budhia Singh (Mayur Patole) is that Budhia wasn’t even allowed a childhood. Budhia is 4 when his coach Biranchi Das (Manoj Bajpayee) discovers his talent for running and from then on Das never allows him to stop. He only dangles the water bottle over Budhia, never allowing him to take a sip. The irony is in Das discovering this talent. He chances upon it because he metes out a punishment to Budhia for swearing and forgets about it only to find Budhia running for hours. This is not even something Padhi had to embellish. This is the real story and that is how Das decided to train Budhia as a future Olympian. It isn’t said lightly that truth is stranger than fiction.
Director Padhi doesn’t shy away from confronting the elephant in the room. He brings up the question of abuse and exploitation in the first few scenes as all of Odisha is waiting for Budhia’s 65 kilometre endurance from Puri to Bhubaneswar to begin. Maybe in another director’s hands Budhia Singh Born To Run would have become an underdog story. A boy caught in the malnutrition problems of Odisha rises up to run marathons and distances longer than marathons. But to Padhi’s credit, the film never becomes celebratory which would have turned the film into a farce. It puts the right questions across to everybody – Budhia Singh’s uneducated mother, his coach Das, the Child Welfare Ministry, the politicians. Budhia’s mother Sukanti (Tillotama Shome) is so entrenched in poverty that she’s ready to just about sell anything for some money. First, she sells the scraps at her home to the person who is singling out bangles and other things. It is a subtle, deftly directed scene when you think she’s adjusting her hand to show the single bangle in her hand but what she is really doing is showing her hair. He says the hair is too short and refuses to buy. So he ends up buying Budhia. It is Das who saves Budhia from him. At one point we see this man quietly passing through Budhia’s neighborhood as always, looking at a billboard announcing Budhia’s achievements and the upcoming marathon. It makes you wonder who is the leech and whether Budhia has simply changed hands.
Budhia Singh Born To Run is also a quintessentially Indian story. It speaks of our very domestic issues. The pressure on our children to perform is not just physical like in the case of sports and Budhia. The film also raises questions about the mental stress we place on our kids for academic purposes and the way our education is designed. In a scene disguised as a throwaway moment, the documentary filmmaker (from outside India) who’s taken an interest in Budhia meets the people in Child Welfare Ministry who seem very assured that what Das is doing is abuse and against what their ministry stands for. She simply asks, then why aren’t you doing anything if this is something against the law? If a privately run Marathon in Delhi can stop Budhia from running because he doesn’t make their age cut-off, why is the ruling party and its ministry satisfied by just enacting a political circus using Budhia’s situation. A gaping hole in Sukanti’s roof is never closed which was a promise made by Das. There is a slum-dweller using this and Budhia’s mother as a pawn to get even with Das, the leader of opposition uses his closeness with Das for political maneuvering, there is an environment organization that piggybacks on Budhia’s marathon coverage and there is Das himself manipulating Budhia, much to the consternation of his wife Gita (an excellent Shruti Marathe) and their family doctor/friend. Padhi doesn’t take sides, he masterfully lists the problems with every character involved in Budhia’s life and how the only innocent left in the lurch is Budhia himself. A boy probably destined for greatness trained too hard, too early? A boy trained too hard, too early but that only helped him break out of his caste related life of grief in the slums and an escape out of Odisha’s malnutrition crisis? Thanks to Soumendra Padhi, Budhia Singh Born To Run has its heart in the right place even as it battles questions around the simplicity of children and the complexity of childhood.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)