DVD Marathon Boy
Marathon Boy, the debut feature documentary from director Gemma Atwal, is an almost unfathomably layered film. Giving a glimpse into the lives of those so easy to overlook is a function documentary film serves to better effect than almost any other kind of filmmaking, and nowhere is this more true than with the story of an Indian boy with an extraordinary gift for endurance running.
The film tells the story of Budhia Singh, a 3-year-old boy from the impoverished Orissa district of India; the movie opens with Budhia preparing to run his sixth half-marathon (thirteen miles), in front of adoring crowds. Hundreds of people line the street to see him run, and he is warmly greeted by everyone he passes.
It would be easy to believe that this might in fact be a heart-warming tale of a boy who liked to run, but even more so it is the story of Biranchi Das, the charismatic and deeply impassioned judo dojo master, who has taken it upon himself to rescue poor children from the slums and shelter them within his dojo-cum-orphanage. Biranchi sees Budhia’s talent for what it is, and has taken him in from life in the slums in order to both shelter and train him; Budhia’s biological mother, Sukanti, is given an active role in his life, but Biranchi is by far the greater parental influence.
Over the next five years, the film follows Budhia and Biranchi through a variety of triumphs and disappointments, as Budhia’s fame and popularity become too much of a temptation for authorities and the media, and allegations of his torture and mistreatment are laid against Biranchi in ever-intensifying legal battles. Far beyond the simple desire to run his way to Olympic glory in the future, the film displays a bond between a man and his adopted son, as well as an idiosyncratic but still universally relevant look at the ways in which politics and the media can become pervasive influences in all aspects of life…
A huge part of the power of Atwal’s film is the seemingly constant presence of media organisations and reporters interviewing and filming aspects of Biranchi and, even more so, Budhia’s lives; we see not only the events being recorded (be they the marathon efforts of Budhia, or Biranchi’s passionate demands for justice in the face of adversity), but the ways in which the media process and relay such information. The formation of a news sensation, entirely situated within this small boy, is the work of huge journalistic forces, the invasive profusion of cameras and microphones, the writing of songs proclaiming Budhia’s glory, the bestowing of trophies and handshakes from eminent official parties, and the feverish near-worship with which the local and national communities rally behind him.
Atwal manages to gain an incredible level of intimacy and closeness with her subjects.
However, the film also explores the dark side of this; accusations are levelled from India’s Department of Child Welfare against Biranchi of exploiting and manipulating Budhia into doing his bidding, against his own medical interests. News of great amounts of money from foreign sponsors cast a shadow across Biranchi’s altruistic outward appearance; Budhia’s mother begins to demand compensation for herself. Atwal is extremely successful in remaining objective and ambivalent towards each of her subjects, allowing them the freedom to say their piece, but always ensuring that the viewer is given space to create the necessary distance to engage with each statement with a critical eye. The interview portions are juxtaposed with frequently revealing shots of daily routines and interactions (a shot near the beginning involving Budhia saying to a cyclist whilst running, “You motherf**ker! Get out of my way,” speaks volumes about the arrogance and warped personality that Budhia’s immensely public life has given him).
All of this is beautifully shot, taking in the vast expanse of India’s Orissa district in gorgeous, vibrant colour that breathes life into every moment of the film. From its upbeat and positive beginnings to its far more emotionally draining conclusion, Marathon Boy never becomes a chore or an ordeal to watch, but rather slowly expands and peels away layers of itself to reveal surprisingly stark realities about both the lives of India’s poor and disenfranchised, as well as the singularly unique case of Budhia Singh. Atwal manages to gain an incredible level of intimacy and closeness with her subjects, allowing us into their homes and places of work, without ever becoming a presence within the film herself – it’s a combination of Direct Cinema and talking head interviews that allows events to take their course, whilst always providing commentary to contextualise and reassess what we see.
Marathon Boy is a beautifully told story of ambition and fame, within the context of contemporary India’s troubles and poverty. It tells the story of two astonishing personalities; one constantly trying to define and defend himself against the onslaught of the national and international media, and another growing up in an environment of scrutiny and pervasive visibility after being bestowed with an incredible athletic gift. It is a film that could have been a perfectly passable fictionalised fable, but this documentary allows the strangeness and discrepancies of reality to filter through and create a rich and worthwhile experience.
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