Thursday, October 27, 2016

Budhia Singh - Born to Run [dir. Soumendra Padhy]

Budhia Singh - Born to Run is the biographical film of the wunderkid from Odisha who ran about 50 marathons before he was 5 years old. It's equally, and perhaps more so, a portrait of Biranchi Das, the coach who discovered young Budhia's ability and tried to hone it through punishing extremes.

Early on we see Budhia as an ordinary slum kid sold by his impoverished mother for 850 rupees as a domestic help. Biranchi, a Judo instructor, social worker nurturing a bus-load of kids and hired dogsbody for political parties, rescues Budhia from this situation and takes him under his wing. A chance discovery of the child's stamina (when Biranchi orders Budhia to run rounds without stopping unless told, and forgets about him for hours after) ignites the coach's desire to mould his protege into a marathoner. His formula is a mix of reward (Budhia gets new shoes and better food, compared to his foster home siblings, and more attention) and punishment (Biranchi puts him through a tortuous routine of long hours of running everyday, refusing even water during the endeavour).

While the use of a rah-rah "let's do it" soundtrack seems to put the film in the same bracket as other recent Bollywood sports films like those on Milkha Singh and Mary Kom, there is always an element of ambiguity in the depiction of Biranchi Das' attitude towards Budhia. While he may have rescued and nurtured Budhia (and the film makes a point of Biranchi's affection, even to the point of ignoring his own child), providing a more stable father figure than Budhia had previously known, he is also shown to be ruthless in his ambition to make the boy excel. Shots of Budhia running alone are intercut with scenes of his siblings and classmates enjoying a normal childhood while his teachers and principal gloat over the fame that his achievements will bring them. One of the most powerful scenes comes in the staging of Budhia's 65km run from Puri to Bhubaneshwar. Biranchi tagging alongside on a bicycle taunts Budhia with a water bottle but never gives it to him. The soundtrack dies down and we hear Budhia's faltering gasps, which are spliced with visions of cold drinks and ice lollies, the fantasies of a boy racked with unimaginable thirst. Towards the end of the race Budhia faints and is carried to an emergency station where he throws up the fluids he is made to drink. After this Biranchi takes him out to display to the crowd almost like a trophy, not exactly a hurrah moment.

The film also takes into account the allegations that Biranchi exploited the boy to fulfil his own desires for fame and fortune. Manoj Bajpai gives a trademark measured performance, fully embracing the character's ambiguity, making him alternately sympathetic and provocative. Young Mayur Patole who plays Budhia gives a non-cutesy blank-faced performance appropriate for a boy whose actions were entirely dictated by the people around him.

The Odisha Child Welfare Commission filed proceedings against Biranchi Das for exploitation, which led to Budhia's separation from his coach and a ban from long-distance running that only caused the wastage of a potential talent. In the film the committee is portrayed as a coterie of unimaginative babu-dom more interested in preening its feathers than any real concern for the boy. Shortly after, Biranchi Das was gunned down by unknown assailants, while Budhia languishes in the state sports hostel where since he has regressed to a life of mediocrity, resting only on the hope that we will once again meet a coach with the passion of his former mentor.

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