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ON FILM

Marathon Boy: What makes a 4-year-old run

By Philip Martin

This article was published October 7, 2011 at 3:13 a.m.

— Gemma Atwal’s Marathon Boy is one of the most extraordinary films you’re likely to see this year, a documentary that starts out as an examination of a sports curiosity - a precocious small boy saved from poverty by a charismatic svengali runs 48 marathons by the time he turns 4 years old - and develops into a tragic study of manipulation, greed and political corruption, punctuated by a murder.

It won the Golden Rock Documentary Award at this year’s Little Rock Film Festival and will be screened today as part of the festival’s ongoing Argenta Film Series at 7 p.m. at the Argenta Community Theater, 405 N. Main St. in North Little Rock. Atwal will be present to talk about the film after the screening. (Tickets are $8 and available at ticketleap.com or at the box office prior to the screening. Admission is free to 2012 festival Gold Pass holders.)

Atwal, a London-based filmmaker of Indian descent, spent five years following Budhia Singh, the world’s youngest marathon runner when she met him in 2005 when he was 3 and followed the story for nearly five years.

When Singh was 10 months old, his father, an alcoholic beggar in the Gautam Nagar slum in the Indian city of Bhubaneswar, died leaving Singh’s impoverished mother little recourse but to “sell” her son as soon as he was old enough to work. Eventually, Singh was apprenticed for 800 rupees - or about $16 - to a man who sold stationery and ribbons on the street.

He was rescued a week or so later by Biranchi Das, a businessman and athletic coach who operated a sports center cum orphanage called Judo House.

Singh’s talent for running was discovered after Das ordered him to run as punishment for calling another child a filthy name - he sent him to run around the sports field as punishment. Das left and forgot about the boy. When Das returned, nearly seven hours later, he found the boy still running, and decided to make him India’s first great Olym-pic marathoner.

The boy is undeniably talented, able to pound mile after mile in his signature red shoes. He became a national celebrity - and a controversial figure.

Questions arise about Das’ motives. Government child welfare officers accuse the judo coach of exploiting his young charge. Singh’s mother - who earlier in the film had attested to Das’ virtues and the pureness of his motives - now claims the judo coach is abusing her son. Das is outraged, and he points out that he’d saved the boy from a life of unreckonable hardship and that elsewhere in the country, 5-year-olds survive by breaking rocks.

For his part, our young runner seems mesmerized by his mentor. “I will run wherever Sir (Biranchi) tells me,” he says. And as we watch him running - and heading off to his private school in a freshly laundered uniform - we can’t help but believe he is better off; even if his rigorous training is ultimately unhealthy.

Then Singh enters a 42-mile race in dangerously hot and humid conditions. He completes the requisite distance in seven hours, but collapses while attempting to push on past, another five miles to a stadium where dignitaries are gathered. This leads to an ugly, political struggle over the boy and his presumedly glorious future. The state that tolerated the conditions that sentence millions to lives of misery intercedes to “protect” him.

Throughout the film Atwal remains impressively neutral, and her amazing access to candid moments speaks to the principal players’ self-aggrandizing and justifying. It is clear that Das has a powerful hold over Singh, and that much of what the boy says parrots his mentor’s words. Does he really love to run? Well, maybe - there is satisfaction in doing what one does well. But in a land of foreclosed options, could he be expected to consider stopping?

And we can believe that Das does love the boy in his way, and that that love is commingled with his own desire to be respected, to have 10,000 people come to his funeral to testify to his goodness. His exploitation of Singh is hardly different from the ways AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) coaches and sometimes fathers (and maybe even sportswriters) exploit young athletes in this country.

With no narration, Atwal allows the story to unfold with a minimum of bells and whistles although there’s a delightful animated segment done with digital shadow puppets. It is a clean and harrowing story that raises uncomfortable questions about the power of parents and their surrogates over children who also happen to be commodities.

E-mail:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 10/07/2011

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