“Once upon a time,” Marathon Boy begins, “In a faded corner of India, a poor man and a slum-boy captured the hearts and souls of the rural masses.” The fairy tale structure evoked by this phrasing is reinforced by the documentary’s particulars: the child Budhia Singh, born into desperate poverty in a Bhubaneswar slum, is sold by his mother Sukanti to a door peddler, and then to Biranchi Das and his wife Gita, keepers of a judo hall. The boy reveals a talent and a passion for running, which Biranchi encourages and exploits: by the time Budhia is four years old, he has run in some 48 marathons, appeared in a number of commercials, and been celebrated around the nation. Almost immediately, their story takes expected and unexpected turns, triumphs and betrayals that lead eventually to murder.
These shifts in fortune are captured in Gemma Atwal’s remarkable film—screening on 16 April at The DocYard—initiated in 2006, when Budhia was still just four and the Child Welfare Committee in Orissa is taking an interest. The movie tracks not only Budhia’s extraordinary running, in shots long and close, over rural roads and city streets, but also the publicity campaign Biranchi wages in order to hang on to his young star, his appearances on TV, interviews in which he insists on his commitment to “social justice” (comparing what he’s doing to the notorious abuses of other Indian five-year-olds, “breaking stones in quarries” and “cutting firewood and selling it”) and doesn’t quite talk about how sponsors support Budhia’s efforts to make it to the Olympics. Interviews with such sponsors and a sympathetic journalist are set against others with state authorities, who eventually forbid the child’s participation in grueling races—even when, as Biranchi devises, the boy will be walking instead of running. If you don’t quite anticipate what happens, you can guess the story can’t end well. But still, the documentary takes a step beyond the obvious argument against child abuse (in multiple forms), to consider the ongoing effects of poverty and celebrity, ambition and despair, effects that aren’t as disparate as you’d first guess.