The story of Budhia Singh is stranger than fiction. He was born in a slum in Bhubaneswar. His family was so poor that his mother sold him for 800 rupees. A judo trainer took him under his wing and discovered that the little boy had an almost superhuman ability to run. Biranchi Das trained Budhia to be a marathon runner. When he was four years old, Budhia made history by running 65 kilometers
and two minutes. But eventually a toxic mix of politics, press and egos undid the dream. The local authorities took Budhia away and sent him to a sports hostel where he grew up, largely forgotten. His mentor was murdered. Budhia is now fourteen and he still hopes of someday making it to the Olympics.
Budhia’s story is a distinctively Indian tragedy. The circumstances are so appalling that it’s impossible to decide who is the villain here. Wisely, debutant director Soumendra Padhi doesn’t pick sides. He dramatizes the facts but he doesn’t gloss over the ugliness. Biranchi is driven by complex motives. He thrives on the attention and power that Budhia’s talent gives him. His training methods are awful – at one point, he makes Budhia run by dangling a water bottle in front of him. But Biranchi also gives the little boy affection and a purpose. Without Biranchi, Budhia’s life becomes anchorless. Manoj Bajpayee imbues this difficult and sometimes unlikable man with humanity. He helps us to understand him.
Padhi’s narrative works best when it focuses on the relationship between Biranchi and Budhia. All the children in the film are very good – especially Mayur Patole who plays Budhia. Mayur is an absolute natural. There’s a wonderful moment when a teacher asks Budhia to tell the class what he has done since the morning and Budhia replies: hugga aur bhagga. What’s less interesting is the whirlwind that Budhia’s talent ignited. The tamasha around each run, the press, the authorities who decide that Biranchi has turned Budhia into a performing monkey. Biranchi’s loving but often fraught relationship with his wife is nicely etched but the other characters aren’t fleshed out enough – especially Budhia’s mother played by Tillotama Shome. After some time, the repeated visuals of various marathons become, quite literally, a slog. I also felt like I never really got enough insight into Budhia’s head – he’s rebellious and mischievous and he really wants a red bicycle. But what drives Budhia to run and run and run? We never find out.