Budhia Singh – Born to Run is positioned as a biopic of the world’s youngest marathon runner, but it’s as much an indictment of Indian bureaucracy and petty politics as it is true story of the five-year-old tyke whose achievements it celebrates. Winner of the National Award for Best Children’s Film earlier this year (under its original title, Duronto), this stirring drama, written and directed by first-timer Soumendra Padhi, is powered by consistent performances from its ensemble, led by a showstealing Manoj Bajpayee in the role of the boy’s coach.

Bajpayee plays Biranchi Das, a well-connected entrepreneur in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, who among other small businesses, runs a judo school where he trains the 22-odd orphaned kids he has sheltered in his home. When he rescues 4-year-old Budhia (Mayur Patole) from an alcoholic bangle seller who ‘purchased’ him from the boy’s penniless mom (Tilottama Shome), Biranchi recognizes his athletic potential and pushes him towards professional greatness.

It’s a by-the-numbers underdog story, and Padhi tells it competently. By the time Budhia is being prepped to run his most ambitious marathon yet – a 70km course from Puri to Bhubaneswar – the kid has become a mini celebrity, drawing attention from the media, local politicians, and the state’s Ministry of Child Welfare whose top dogs want the circus pulled.

The film raises pertinent questions about exploitation and the loss of childhood, while never offering any easy answers. Biranchi, who goes on to legally adopt Budhia, clearly cares for the kid. But Bajpayee’s nuanced performance doesn’t let you miss such details as Biranchi’s growing arrogance and defiance in the face of opposition, and his inability to recognize that the Olympic dream he is fighting for the boy to fulfill is his own, and not necessarily the kid’s.

As is the case with most films based on true stories, there is a tendency to tinker with facts, to exaggerate details, and to portray any character not aligned with the protagonist’s interests as gnarly villains. Yet, the film never derails because Padhi captures the spirit of Budhia’s story with adequate sensitivity. It helps too that young Mayur Patole is so natural as the frail but lively Budhia, his performance never feels contrived or affected. In the marathon scenes, putting everything he’s got into the run, it’s hard to believe that’s not the real athlete we’re watching on screen.

I’m going with three out of five for Budhia Singh – Born to Run. It’s predictably told but heartfelt…and thought-provoking to boot. Not a bad way to spend two hours.

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