Tribeca Film Festival 2011
By Don Simpson | April 20, 2011
Director: Gemma Atwal
What were you doing with your life when you were three years old? Well, I doubt you were running 13-mile half-marathons like Budhia Singh. I certainly was not.
Born in 2002 in the slums of Bhubaneswar (in the eastern Indian state of Orissa), Singh’s mother sold him off at an early age to a peddler for 800 rupees; then Biranchi Das, a renowned judo teacher, bought Singh to save him from the abusive peddler. Das raised Singh along with several other young kids in his Judo Hall orphanage.
Upon punishing Singh one day by making him run laps around the Judo Hall courtyard, Das discovered Singh’s amazing stamina as a runner. Das appointed himself as Singh’s coach and they commenced an arduous training regimen. (When documentary filmmaker Gemma Atwal begins filming the three year old Singh, he has already completed six half-marathons.)
By the age of four, Singh has already completed countless full-length (26-mile) marathons. Das then arranges for Singh to run 42 miles from from the Chapandie temple to Bhubaneshwar. Singh instantly emerges as a national superstar, even a hero of sorts; but Singh’s fame incites a rabid debate. Half-marathons and full-marathons are one thing, but 42 miles is another. Is this exploitation or philanthropy? Is this child abuse or is Das merely providing Singh with a rare opportunity to further develop his inherent skill and become famous? The Indian government and social services pounce on the high profile case and suddenly the entire situation spirals wildly out of control. Singh soon finds his dream to “run all the way to the Olympics” at risk of being spoiled by the corruption and greed of adults.
Marathon Boy began in 2005 as a curiosity study focusing on Singh’s relationship with Das; but after five years of filming, the story develops into something significantly larger. Atwal finds herself in the middle of a controversy that escalates exponentially each and every frame. This Dickensian tale translates directly to the fanatical exploitation of young children in Western cultures. Be it music, athletics, modeling or acting, children’s parents plop their kids into seriously (and stressfully) competitive situations at what often seems like far too early of an age. It is one thing when the children choose that way of life, but another when adults force it upon them. (It also begs the questions: At what age do human beings become rational enough to be able to make that kind of decision? And until that rationality is developed, what decisions should guardians be allowed to make for the children they are responsible for?) Soon the kids are generating more income than their parents, yet where their income is going often becomes questionable. Of course, if there is one thing to take away from Marathon Boy, the debate is not quite as black and white as it would seem…