The “boy who would not stop running” is on the run again. Budhia Awoog Singh, the world’s youngest marathoner according to the Limca Book of Records (2006 edition), has been in the news recently for fleeing the state-run sporting facility in Bhubaneswar, where he claims that he has been kept against his wishes. Budhia’s protests come at a time when a biopic about his childhood feat and his rise to stardom is scheduled for an August 5 release. The boy who ran 48 marathons from when he was five years old is now a brooding and conflicted 14-year-old, who hopes that the upcoming movie based on his achievements and his late mentor will draw attention to his plight.
Budhia Singh Born to Run, directed by debutant filmmaker Soumendra Padhi and starring Manoj Bajpayee and child actor Mayur Parole, has already won a National Film Award in the Best Children’s Film category in 2016. The biopic reveals how a boy from an impoverished village in Odisha village captured the nation’s imagination. Padhi insists that the plot is less about Budhia and more about his relationship with Biranchi Das, his mentor and coach. Das might have pushed Budhia into the spotlight, but he was a controversial figure: he was regularly accused of exploiting the prodigy by the government and the Child Welfare Committee. Das was shot dead in 2008, reportedly because he tried to protect a model from a gangster’s advances. Since then, the real-life Budhia has been growing up at the Kalinga Stadium hostel in Bhubaneswar.
Padhi, who is a software engineer by training, quit his information technology job in Hyderabad to pursue filmmaking. The idea of setting a story about his home state’s most controversial icon had been on his mind since 2010. By the time he moved to Mumbai and began working with the production company Code Red, he had completed the research and first draft of the screenplay of Born To Run. Casting began in 2013, and the film was shot the following year.
“The most challenging part about the film has been the writing,” Padhi said. “Each person had a different version of the incidents and it was interesting to see how they all differed or agreed on certain things.” Given that the most important voice in the narrative is dead, Padhi had to rely on the accounts from the other people in Budhia’s life, including Das’s wife, journalists who covered the events, and Budhia’s family and friends.
Budhia himself was not of much help, Padhi claimed. “He is fourteen years old now and does not remember the incidents of those few years with clarity,” Padhi said. “It is understandable.”
Time has softened the blow of Das’s death on Budhia and taken the edge off the criticism aimed at Das. “Most people now remember only the good things, a lot of the bitterness is gone,” Padhi says. “That’s what time does to people.“
Did Das make or mar Budhia? Padhi’s views on the debate are clear. “What stood out in the entire narrative was the part played by Das,” Padhi said. “The journey of the coach who ran a judo school and orphanage was the starting point of the narrative. If he was making money about of Buddhia’s runs, it was meant to support the orphanage.”
The relationship between Budhia and Das serves as a metaphor for achievement against the odds, Padhi said. “A marathon is not about a competition, it is always a metaphor,” Padhi said. “There is always an element of sports, drama, politics and intrigue around a marathon. In Budhia’s case, it is about a child who wanted to run and a team of doctors and self-appointed well-wishers who did not want him to run. And then there was his coach, who was trying to make a statement with his run. I found these contradictions to be interesting, very grey and beautiful in a way.”
One of the most abiding images from Budhia’s childhood was a team of 200 Army officers running with him. This has been recreated in the film with actual members of the Central Reserve Police Force jogging alongside Mayur.
Padhi auditioned hundreds of boys from around the country, but it was Mayur’s “expressive eyes” that won the resident of one of Pune’s biggest slums the part. “Mayur and Budhia have something in common – both their eyes sparkle with life and yet speak of a certain wisdom,” Padhi said. “They are both survivors. They have seen the ugly side of life at a very early age. And yet they are full of child-like mischief.”
There are other parallels between the young marathoner and the first-time actor who portrays him. “Budhia was too young to grasp his stardom then,” Padhi pointed out. “He grew up in the process of the marathon and Das’s death. Mayur was too young to understand the impact of the film while we were shooting it. He is growing up now, perhaps trying to grasp what stardom is all about. In a way this film will be crucial for both the boys.”
The producers have contributed a small amount of money to Budhia with the hope that his training continues, but it’s not enough, acknowledged Padhi. “Money will not solve his problem. I hope this film is able to bring out a constructive change in his life,” he said.