The original, and more appropriate title, of Soumendra Padhi’s biopic was Duronto (quick, without too many halts). The new one, Budhia Singh Born To Run, is closer to the film’s attempt to sugarcoat its often bitter truths about the making of the country’s, and possibly the world’s, youngest marathoner.
Padhi’s screenplay valourises the role of the Oriya child prodigy’s controversial coach Biranchi Das, stacks up the inspirational songs and soaring background music and goes to great lengths to portray Biranchi as a visionary trainer who spotted Budhia’s talent early and pushed the boy towards state and national fame. Yet, there is enough complexity, thoughtfulness and sensitivity to allow the shadows to gather around Biranchi. Superbly played by Manoj Bajpayee, Biranchi emerges as a blinkered jockey who flogs his prize steed to the finishing line without foreseeing the consequences.
The sports drama hints at mysterious forces behind Biranchi Das’s murder in 2008 and goes along with the conspiracy theory that mere gangsters could not have ended the coach’s ambitions. Yet, the enduring image is of the wispy knee-high runner with the sparkling eyes and the seemingly endless stamina, who unquestioningly follows his mentor’s orders and plants spindly feet on asphalt in search of a glory that he cannot even begin to comprehend.
Budhia, beautifully performed by first-time actor Mayur, is rescued by Biranchi from a possible lifetime of servitude. Budhia has been sold for Rs 800 by his impoverished mother Sukanti (Tilottama Shome) to a bangle-maker. After being brought to Biranchi’s judo school, the boy is less grateful than undisciplined. He wets his bed and refuses to follow Biranchi’s rules, for which he is punished and made to run around the school ground.
Biranchi and his wife Gita (Shruti Marathe) go about their errands and return late in the evening, only to find that Budhia is still running. Biranchi breaks in the untamed horse with a carrot and stick approach, promising him shoes and a red cycle to the chagrin of another boy who has entered the school at the same time. Gita disapproves of Biranchi’s methods, and emerges as the domestic conscience keeper who regularly reminds her husband that Budhia might have a rare talent, but he is, still, a child.
The plot considerably expands on the American documentary Marathon Boy (2011) by Gemma Atwal but leaves out an important insight from that film into Biranchi: he was a savvy showman who knew how to mould public opinion in his favour. Unwilling to accept this quality that is common to maverick coaches and trainers around the world, the debutant director opts to depict Biranchi as a victim of governmental interference. The state Child Welfare Committee swoops down on Das for exploiting Budhia for profit, and his frequent runs-in with the authorities explode when Budhia collapses minutes before completing a 65-kilometre run between Puri and Bhubaneswar in a little over seven hours. Biranchi proves to be a formidable opponent, but it’s Budhia who ultimately pays the price. In the real world, the would-be champion has been debarred from running and is being desultorily trained at a government sports facility in Bhubaneswar, with none of his preternatural skills in evidence.
The movie suggests that had Biranchi been left to his devices, Budhia might have emerged as an Olympic-level runner. Yet, the ethical debate over pushing a clueless child over the finishing line survives the incomplete tribute to Biranchi’s stubborn vision. Born To Run fits the bill of the average sports biopic, but it rises a few notches above the Indian version of the genre. The 111-minute movie might have benefited from fewer montages of Budhia panting over asphalt and less pantomime performances by the government employees (played by Chhaya Kadam and Gajraj Rao). This sports biopic wants to be black and white, but it’s actually a nice shade of grey.