Last night I was invited along to a screening of Gemma Atwal’s fantastic film Marathon Boy at the Club at The Ivy, courtesy of the team at BBC’s Storyville. Now bear with me as I attempt to give a synopsis of the film, it follows a fairly complex series of events, so I hope I can do it justice…
Marathon Boy is tells the story of a feisty young Indian boy named Budhia who is plucked from abject poverty by a charitable local Judo coach. This coach, named Biranchi Das, then unwittingly discovers that the little 3-year-old has a phenomenal talent for running long distances. Biranchi, seeing an opportunity, decides to adopt the boy (who had been abandoned by his impoverished mother), and begins to harness Budhia’s talent for running by rapidly transforming him into a local superstar.
However, this is no simple fairytale story of rags to riches, or suffering to happiness. Whilst we see Biranchi Das as a seemingly caring, father-like figure that wishes to improve the lives of poor orphaned children, we also see him coercing Budhia into running vast distances to gain publicity- first half marathons, then full marathons, then a massive 42 mile run which almost kills the boy.
The story complicates further when the Child Welfare department intervenes in Budhia’s life after concerns for his well-being are raised. The government tries to stop Budhia from running any more races. Biranchi Das sees this intervention as an attack and launches an offensive against the government, attempting to defend himself whilst fervently fighting back at his powerful aggressors. It soon becomes clear that Biranchi picked a fight with the wrong guys, and the Child Welfare department succeeds in banning Budhia from competing.
Not long after this, Budhia’s biological mother comes back into the picture and, having been convinced that her son’s talent can provide her with wealth, takes Biranchi to court to gain back custody of the young son she had previously abandoned. Budhia’s mother succeeds in her petition, and he is forced back to the slums with her.
Amongst all this fighting and conflict over ownership of the young boy, a sudden, shocking event occurs. Biranchi Das is shot dead at his Judo Hall. It is not clear who killed him or why, but it is suggested that the killing may have been orchestrated by government or police officials, who were tired of Biranchi’s consistent attacks on their authority.
In the maelstrom of events the film follows it is difficult to determine heroes from villains. Few characters emerge in a positive light: Biranchi Das is a man of great dedication and ambition, but this ambition drives him to exploitation and hubris, which quickly leads to his downfall. Budhia’s mother is a poor woman forced by extreme poverty to abandon her son, but driven seemingly only by greed to gain him back. The government and police are corrupt and ruthless in destroying anyone who stands in their way or threatens their power.
The one shining example is Budhia, the young, innocent boy who is manipulated and brainwashed by the adults who compete for control over him. Despite his unsettled childhood, the film ends on a happy note, following Budhia at his new school for which he has received a scholarship. He appears in good spirits, and remembers the days with his coach at the Judo Hall fondly.
In a Q&A after the film the director, Gemma Atwal, described how she did not want the film to prescribe any notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Instead, her aim was to create an objective picture of a very complex situation. She talks about her film in ‘shades of grey’ – much like life, few stories are ever as clear-cut as they seem. When asked about her attitude towards Biranchi Das, Gemma stated that her feelings were very much ‘conflicted’- she saw him as an ‘irrepressible soul’ with a ‘roaring intensity’, but also very much a product of his environment, a well-intentioned philanthropist with a desire for wealth, status, and recognition. The director also described Biranchi Das as the Fagan-type character in her ‘Bollywood movie scripted by Dickens’, I think it is his part in the story which gives the film its unique intensity and passion.
Gemma has done a marvelous job with the film. It is beautifully shot, with wonderful animations inserted to help with the narration, and the story is told in a refreshingly impartial way, which is often difficult to achieve in documentary film. Gemma and her partner Matt Norman made the film over five long years, their dedication has clearly been rewarded; not only do they have a fantastic film to show from it, they have also received much critical acclaim from around the world.
Below is the trailer for the film, give it a watch, and please try and see the whole film for yourself if you get the chance!