The mysterious fable of 'Budhia Singh'

Nikhil Thiyyar Delhi

On the morning of May 6, 2006, a 4-year-old kid stepped out onto a street near the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Making his way through star-struck pilgrims, mangy dogs and bone-thin cows, the kid, whose name was Budhia Singh, was the focal point of everyone’s attention. There was much reason for this fanfare. Budhia had already run 6 marathons and ran 120 kilometres on a weekly basis. Be that as it may, the task ahead of him was a steep one. He had to run all the way from Puri to Bhubaneswar, a 65-kilometre-long stretch characterised by rising temperatures and scalding asphalt that would scare any courageous adult marathoner away, let alone a child. The child in question not only completed the marathon but also did it without drinking water on the way. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. It is this truth that Budhia Singh: Born to Run seeks to capture.

Manoj Bajpai plays Biranchi Das, Budhia’s coach, whose life was brutally cut short when he dared to stand up to a local gangster. The events leading up to Biranchi’s death are not touched upon at all in the film. As a narrative-oriented decision this makes sense, for the movie is about Budhia. Helmed by first time director Soumendra Padhi, the movie tries its best to tackle the tough questions that such a compelling subject would inspire. Do coaches and parents like Biranchi have the right to conscript children to chase after glory? Who sets the rules when it comes to what a child can and can’t do? And why were we so transfixed by the bizarre achievements of a 4-year-old boy? There is a telling moment in the movie in which a real life interview of Narayan Murthy is played on screen. Murthy is shown to be subtly castigating the boy’s guardians for making him run at such a tender age. But the vexing part is, Budhia clearly enjoyed running from an early age. If that is the case, who is anyone to stop him from doing so?

The films exploration of Budhia’s impoverished circumstances throws some light on why the greatest complaint that Budhia ever had was that he was not getting enough mutton. For a child who faced constant hunger pangs as an infant, food was perhaps the greatest gift that anyone could give him. There is a scene where Mayur Patole who plays Budhia gobbles up a banana and a glass of milk. It’s a positively delightful bit of writing that establishes the character’s ravenous appetite and his endearing innocence in one go.

Helmed by first time director Soumendra Padhi, the movie tries its best to tackle the tough questions that such a compelling subject would inspire. Do coaches and parents like Biranchi have the right to conscript children to chase after glory? Who sets the rules when it comes to what a child can and can’t do? And why were we so transfixed by the bizarre achievements of a 4-year-old boy? There is a telling moment in the movie in which a real life interview of Narayan Murthy is played on screen

The one question that the film leaves untouched is: why do child prodigies fizzle out? It's very important to realize that when kids are immensely great at something, such as playing the violin or running for hours, they’re never performing at a great adult level. They’re only pulling off what other kids can’t. Perhaps this explains the mystery of Budhia Singh. Then again, maybe it does not. We will never know.

Budhia Singh: Born to Run is a compelling movie which eschews many of the trappings of the Bollywood sports biopic. This in itself is a reason to watch this film.